A feminist’s observations

What’s it like to write about feminism and women’s issues in Bangladesh? Author and blogger Marzia Prova has fought long and hard to get to write openly about sex, rape, equality, menstruation and religious attitudes towards women. The price has been high – her community and family want nothing to do with her and she receives constant threats on the net.

December 17 2015 Text: Marzia Prova

Like other girls’ my childhood was marked by depression and oppression. Only when I was six years old did I understand that my mother every month experienced a kind of ‘unnatural situation.’ I found blood on the bed sheets and packets of sanitary napkins under the pillow. One day out of curiosity I told her “Ma! There is some blood.” Ma put her stiff hands over my mouth and pulled me into a room. Then she whispered to me “Don’t say those strange words to anybody.” From that day on I understood that Mother had some blood issues and to mention them was totally forbidden for me. My day was coming. I became a teenage girl and for the first time I also experienced my monthly bleeding. But I could find no reason to keep the words concerning my menstruation a secret. “My blood should not be a secret. It is my own property and everybody should know about it”—this is how I felt. But my mother taught me not to open my mouth about this matter. She did not tell anybody—neither my aunty nor my friend’s mother—about the change in my body. She thought that when the other people came to know about it, they would ‘look’ at me in a different way. LOOK at me. Are there different kinds of looks? I had not known that, but in those days I was forced to know.

Just three months after my first menstruation a to me unknown person abused my body. We were renting a house at the time and one of our neighbors moved out and a stranger moved in. As a child I was naughty and restless and I was therefore eager to inform this unknown person about the facilities of that house. I talked ‘too much’ to that guy and in an empty room he SUDDENLY. JUST suddenly grasped me and kissed me like a mad dog. His hands grabbed my little soft boobs. He wanted to tear my frock. Luckily, our home maid came at the right moment and I was saved from being raped. That day I understood the ‘look’ my mother feared so.

I described this horrible ‘accident’ in my diary and kept the diary in a secret place. Why? I don’t know; maybe I feared the look. Maybe I feared the harsh words of other people who reacted towards me as though I was a bad girl who wanted to be raped. For nine years I learnt the Quran from Huzur Apa (in our country a female Islamic teacher is called Huzur Apa). She always instructed me to cover my chest with an additional dress since my big, grown bosom attracted the men. So I had to wear extra clothing; I also had to cover my face and hair so that men could not become excited from watching my big hair and my face. However, I used to tell her “Why do I need to wear this extra clothing—this ‘Hijab?’ Men attract me too but you never tell them to wear extra clothing? Why only me? Their attraction should be their responsibility, not mine.” Huzur Apa became very angry because I protested against her favorite Quran teachings.

Eventually I realized that all these words—boobs, menstruation, bra, panty, vagina—had become secret topics among my friends. They whispered about these issues in the back row of the classroom; I wanted to talk about them in a free place, in a public space. So I started to write about them. “Please be open about your monthly bleeding,” and “Breasts are your own property, don’t be ashamed of them” were some of the titles of my articles. I showed the texts to my friends (all were girls) and they were astonished that a girl could write on this topic. So they insulted me. They wanted to correct me. They paid me and what I wore extra attention. I became a hot cake for them; I became a topic of discussion. So I stopped that kind of writing to save them from their moms and from other people. Then one day my mother sold some of these papers and some she threw in a garbage bin. In this way I lost all of my texts. Today when I remember those days, I realize that it was too tough a task for a fifteen-year-old girl to talk against the conventions of society.

Instead I started writing romantic stories and therefore once more became popular among my age mates. At that time the hero of my story could be a dashing and handsome personality and the heroine an oppressed woman, who could not struggle, could not say much, and who was always crying. My hero saved my heroine and everybody praised my writing. At that time too I was emotionally attracted to a boy younger than I, who was my neighbor. I was then sweet eighteen. I don’t know whether it was love or not; maybe it was an illusion. However, I wrote a story about my feelings and one Saturday a renowned newspaper published the story. That Saturday was a terrible day—I don’t want to remember it. The boy, his mother, and all his kith and kin spent the day trying to define me; they tried to work out what kind of a bad girl I was. How dare I talk about my feelings. Didn’t I know that girls in this society, in this country have no rights to express their feelings publicly? EXPRESSIONS OF FEELINGS in words had also become prohibited for girls.

My texts therefore often changed track and sometimes I haven’t been able to write at all. But then, eventually, I always return to the writing.

When I was a first year student of engineering, my male friend one day asked me why I needed to study engineering. Engineering is not for girls he said; a girl should rather look after her children and look after her husband. I then realized that a girl wearing a dress and working in an office like a man is just beyond some people’s ways of thinking. I cannot believe that in the 20th century I still have to struggle for my rights, for gender equality, and a sense of security.

So, again I picked up my pen. This time it is not for the papers—instead I have chosen an online platform to express my ideas. For my ‘rigid mentality’ my boyfriend left me. I became frustrated, but did not lose hope. We had a physical relationship but when the relationship was over and my family came to know about the break-up they largely blamed me. Sex is a social taboo in our country. When a mature girl and a boy make love, society will blame the girl. My society believes that a boy can make love to many different girls, but a girl should have only one man in her life. If he leaves you, please be alone, and don’t have sex with other men. This is what I had to listen to at the time. So, for each passing day my pen was sharpened like a sword. Once I received a rape threat from one of my readers. That was when my second relationship was also breaking up due to some of my writings, texts where I opposed religion. I believe that since the creators and preachers of religion are all men there does not exist a single good religious written document in support of women; every religion wants to make a woman into a parasite.

When I get rape threats I try to disregard that person. I get these threats on social media. But some guy once happened to send a message of sexual harassment, including slang words and references to my mother, to my elder brother living in Canada. However, my brother was too afraid to consider the situation women are living in in Bangladesh, so, in the end, I was the one to go to the police to seek protection and raise charges against that guy for cyber crime.

The struggle goes on. After those charges I got even more rape threats and many people slandered me in public. My teachers at my university turned me into a point of discussion and at a formal gathering they insulted me several times. My feminist views also snatched my best friends from me. My writing has broken up my relationships four times. The last one just forbade me to write about feminism. Presently I am in exile, far from my family, far from my soul mates, from my cousins, from my neighbors, from my kith and kin. What do you think? Should I stop writing?

Feminism is not an accepted view in my country. Apart from a handful writers, most writers, both male and female, want to establish a heroic view of the male. Why can’t a girl be a hero? Why do we call a human being a “HE?” Aren’t women human beings?

It is a truth—a wall has been raised between me and my nearest and dearest. Despite this, I still feel proud that I am a feminist who wants to break down another wall, the one between women and men, and to establish gender equality in our society. Maybe the people of my country will need a lot of time to understand that a feminist like me wants to break down the wall never to raise it again.

Marzia Prova went from studying Aeronautical Engineering to become a writer. She has recently started the blog portal “FeminismBangl,” where she publishes stories and articles about and for women in Bangladesh.