My Body, My Shame ?!
By Snigdha Ali
It was a rainy afternoon, and she was walking fast. She was looking for a rickshaw to return home before it started pouring heavily. And just when she thanked her stars for finding one, for the millionth time the comment flew towards her - “Whew! What a body!” And for the millionth time she was petrified.
It’s a strange feeling. She knew that she had to have a body to host her beating heart, and she had a beautiful one, but at the same time she wished that she didn’t have one. From the early adolescence this was a source of worry for her mother and a source of embarrassment for her. She tried to hide her physical existence as much as possible. But every now and then women from the neighborhood, relatives, eve teasers, female friends, or admiring Romeos let her know that she had a beautiful body. Had she had a beautiful face that would have been a completely different story. Parents would have been relieved with the hope of marrying her off with less hassle. But here they were constantly worried that instead of stimulating any aesthetic sense this kind of beauty might trigger off other impulses and someone just might ‘Do’ something to their daughter. Instead of accusing the culprit some people would blame their daughter for not taking appropriate measures to protect herself. Some might even go further and blame her for alluring the perpetrators. What a nightmare that would be ! Naturally this sense of dread and shame was rightfully transferred to the girl’s mind. She could never look at her body without feeling guilty. She could never think of it as a source of pride or joy, or as an object of beauty, but a heavy burden.
Can we really blame the hypothetical parents ? Don’t we live in a society where rape and sexual assault against women is a recurrent, unstoppable, morbid reality ? At the same time is this all there is to this ? No. Usually, people - may be very slowly - but constantly recreate and redefine the society they live in. Do we ?? Even if we do how slow is that ? In our culture discussing sex or sensuality is a stigma. Publicly an act of sex is discussed only in the background of reproduction or the opposite of it, i.e. contraception. As if this is not something that gives people bodily pleasure, or something which is beautiful, or something that can express both physical and emotional intimacy - this is something hush hush. Its there but its there almost like a ghost. So coming from such a society how do we look at this now ? And more importantly how do women feel about this ? Men, being the privileged gender in the normative sense, have the opportunity to get exposed to different sources of information from the outside world. They also get the chance to exchange opinions and ideas about sex among close circles since our social and cultural norms allow men to talk about anything and everything. Not to say that women will be ‘punished’ if they talked about sex, but they would definitely be symbolically ostracized if they didn’t choose the audience wisely. They would not fall under the category of ‘good’ girls. Their limit is up to gossiping or filling up the vacuum with imagination that is created by books or movies.
As a result, women in our country do not get any sex education, nor they always get to know the correct things. Not even about reproduction. An astonishing number of women (married and unmarried) don’t know that there exists an ecstacy called orgasm for women too. It might sound shocking but even today, sitting in an affluent living room in one of the US’s cosmopolitan cities, one woman could say that when babies were born they were very tiny and that they grew to a human size ( the 5-10 pounds average size) instantly as they came out of the womb and the outside air touched them ! She herself had given birth to two children !!! So many women get pregnant unexpectedly only because they think they are taking the correct protection based on their limited knowledge. Or, for not taking any protection because of the fact that having sex is so overwhelming an experience for them they solely concentrate on the present and forget about the future. Growing up in that environment and now living in the US in a contrasting environment, sometimes I stop and ponder. If the issue of sex can be so excessively explicit, the fleshly expression of sensuality - the body, can be such a source of pride, self esteem or happiness for women in the Western world why does it have to be the opposite for us ? Islam as a religion shuns the concept out for women (of course not for men as they are promised such related joy in the afterlife) and we all know that religion plays an important role in shaping the cultural norms, yet if we look at the Classical Bengali literature we find that sensuality was such a prominent theme. Yes, as usual as they were written by men almost exclusively the women were present as the exotic ‘other’, but the point remains that the topic was vibrant. The Baishnab Padabolies, Meghdut, Mahabharat all are examples of that. So why then but not now ? It’s not that we haven’t evolved at all in regards to religion influenced social codes of conduct. We don’t have to adapt a completely Western attitude or expect to change the society overnight. But is it too much to hope to just start sensibly addressing the issue, now, in 2002 ?
A 23 years old Canadian born Bangladeshi (or South Asian, living in Canada) woman suddenly started wearing the Burqa in her adulthood. She thinks this is liberating for her. In response to the excessive objectification of female body, insane rat race to ‘fit in’ the trendy look, she has chosen to completely conceal herself from the human eyes so that her appearance will not be subjected to any scrutiny. She feels proud of her decision. Women in our country also wear the Burqa, mostly because they think they have to, so not to be subjected to any lustful, sinful and provocative thoughts or judgement. The outcome is the same but they are derived from the opposite ends of the same spectrum - direct or created impositions on women. At the cost of our identity, values and sanity can we really afford to continue this ? Is it too much to ask that we begin a process of unveiling the visible and invisible Burqa’s off ourselves?
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