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ISSN: 0974-892X

VOL. XIII
ISSUE II

July, 2019

 

 

Taslima Nasrin’s Revenge: A Testament of Protest

Ramnath Kesarwani, Assistant Professor (English), Shri Prem Prakash Memorial College, Teerthanker Mahaveer University, Moradabad

 

Abstract

The theme of protest in literature has been present in almost every society cutting across culture and tradition. Protest literature primarily derides and ridicules the evils and follies of the society aiming at correcting its ways. The South Asian women writers have also been focusing at expressing their dissenting voices against the system that seeks to perpetuate gender discrimination and women’s oppression. Their dissenting voices give voice to the voiceless and that have been suppressed with the patriarchal social structure. One such writer is Taslima Nasrin from Bangladesh, a human rights activist who advocates for the freedom of expression and women’s freedom writing against women’s subordination.

As a protest writer Nasrin’s writings are knitted around the theme of protest and empowerment of women. She primarily portrays her women characters caught in a marriage, struggling hard with discriminatory attitude of society against women and emerge as empowered. In her novel, Revenge (1992) she knits the story of a woman named Jhumur, an educated wife who registers her protest against the domestic violence inflicted upon her by her husband, Haroon. Jhumur is falsely accused of infidelity by her husband, who thinks impossible of a woman to become pregnant in six weeks of the wedding and cynically compels her to abort the child. The horrible experience shatters her inner self consequently a seed of revenge brews in her heart. In order to register protest against injustice hurled upon her she plans to conceive a child from a man other than her husband. She fights as an empowered woman in a society which is very much orthodox, hypocritical and male biased that believes in suppressing the voice and identity of women. My paper will discuss and explore in this context how Nasrin allows her protagonist to protest injustice by crossing the threshold no matter if it is against the cultural code of Bangladeshi society..

Keywords: Domestic violence, Patriarchy, Subversion, Protest, Revenge, Empowerment.

 

Kate Millet wrote, as Catharine A. Mackinnon mentions in the Foreword, that unless we “eliminate the most pernicious of our systems of oppression, unless we go to the very center of the sexual politics and its sick delirium of power and violence, all our efforts at liberation will only land us again in the same primordial stews” (Kate Millet 22). Millet demonstrated that sexualization of power is the root cause of women’s oppression. Sexuality is fundamentally socially constructed in male favour identifying male supremacy in the family and women are left in the margin in all its social structure. Patriarchy itself is the core of male domination and female subordination in the family or society. Though, literally, the term patriarchy means, as V. Geetha writes in her book Patriarchy “the absolute rule of the father or the eldest male member over his family” (Geetha 4), yet, now, it is seen as a system in which women are subordinated to men resting on the defined notions of masculine and feminine placed by “sexual and property arrangements that privilege men’s choice, desires and interests over and above those of women in their lives” (Geetha 8). It is against that valorization of the female subordination to masculine authority and virility that became the subject of protest in women‘s writing cutting across cultures. Since protest literature assists in interrogating a society’s beliefs and convictions questioning their reliability women writers of the Indian sub-continent venture to question the social ills prevailing in system of patriarchy. Their venture displays a wide range of dissenting voices from a gentle complain to radical criticism. In south Asian women’s writing the term protest guides to the opposition of the unequal treatment of women, domestic violence viz. physical, sexual and psychological oppression. The principle of protest arises out of the hegemonic concept of power that results in the domination of one over the other. Scott James says that for the study of power relation we must keep the fact in mind that “virtually all ordinarily observed relations between dominant and subordinate represent the encounter of the public transcript of the dominant with the public transcript of the subordinate (Scott James 13). In order to study the female voice of protest within the south Asian context the study of socio-cultural condition must be gender specific since, as Usha Bande writes in her books Writing Resistance, women’s protest is “variable, complex and multivalent because women live in dialectical relations with the patriarchal ideological structure” (Bande 02).

The Indian woman writer, Shashi Deshpande, in her article “No (Hu) man is an Island” says that “women are neither inferior nor subordinate human beings but one half of the human race. I believe that women (and men as well) should not be straight- jacketed into roles that warp their personalities, but should have options available to them”. However, the women have been “straight- jacketed” into roles that has warped their personality turning them into the stories of victimization. But this story of victimization does not take place only outside but also within the liminal periphery of the “threshold” which restricted woman’s place in family and society. Taslima Nasrin, like most of the South Asian women writers, talks boldly against the patriarchal system that perpetuates gender discrimination and violence against women in society. She is an exiled Bangladeshi writer who has been writing about the stories of victimization of women in what Townsend and Momsen termed as the “classic patriarchal belt”. She is a human rights activist who advocates for the freedom of expression and women’s freedom. Famous for her master piece Lajja (1993) she has been acclaimed with numerous awards like Ananda literary Award, Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thoughts etc. for the literary contribution as well as the effort in enriching the world peace through her secular humanism. Her name is not unknown in the field of literary writing where she, outspokenly, writes about the oppression of women within the south Asian homes by the male oriented society. She contends that the social norms and customs are set solely by masculine forces who have been in the habit of dominating female sensibility and therefore, the area of women is confined within the threshold which is likened to a place of nurture, family solidarity, domestic ethics, in which the woman plays a determining role, while, the “world beyond the threshold is an unknown arena full of male activities concerning business, trade, politics and administration”. Malashri Lal writes:

The threshold is a real as well as a symbolic bar marking a critical transition. Men have traditionally passed over the threshold unchallenged and partaken of both worlds, the one within and the other ‘without’. Women have been expected to inhabit only the one world contained by the boundaries of home. (Malashri Lal 12)

In South Asian literature home is interpreted as a site that evokes emotions, sentiments, memories with its familiar, safe and protected boundary. However, the site fails to evoke these traits if the relationship of its inhabitants i.e. man- woman relationship is disrupted by the violation of one’s right by the other on the basis of gender. It is a general concept as well as historically a fact that woman is treated as “other” inferior to their male counterparts in society. Kate Millet in her book Sexual Politics describes that women were politically and socially oppressed by a patriarchal system that used sex for the purpose of domination. And, therefore, in South Asian literary horizon the contemporary women writers like Kamla Das, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande, Tehmina Durrani, Kamila Shamsie, Taslima Nasrin etc. started their voyage to redefine the position of women in the male oriented world. The life for women has been challeging in patriarchal social structure; however, the Indian sub-continental women are found more tight- roped in the tradition due to complex structure of the family. Shashi Deshpande in an interview with Sue clarifies women’s position of the Indian Subcontinent:

It’s hard for women everywhere and a little harder for Indian [sub- continental] women because the family really does claim you. It’s not just the immediate family; it’s the extended family, and most of the family duties are taken over by women. The men are the pillars of the family, but the work, including the emotional network and the bonding and all these things like bringing the family together—it’s all done by women. (Deshpande 131)

This paper that I have written is discussed in the light of south Asian family structure in which a woman is constructed to sacrifice her individuality, her choices, her self-respect for the male members of the family and how a woman strives to assert her identity, to give dignity to the image of a woman and resists the domestic oppression forced against her by crossing the threshold. Defining the meaning of the ‘family’ Nivedita Menon writes in her book Seeing like a Feminist that family as an institution is based on “inequality, its function is to perpetuate particular forms of private property ownership and lineage – that is, patrilineal forms of property and descent, where property and the family ‘name’ flow from father to sons” (Menon 6). This structure of the family is supposed to be universal and followed by all and any breach in it is considered the violation of values. Within this parameter is justified the conception of wifehood and motherhood which a woman is expected to follow strictly.

Taslima Nasrin is a feminist writer and the theme of her writings tends to be the construction of gender and patriarchy in which she places the struggle and conflict of her women protagonists within a familial structure and their emergence as empowered individuals. Her novels provide a plate-form to understand the causes of women’s subordination, the stereotypical roles allotted to them, the abuses that they encounter at social and domestic domain and how the women instead of giving up everything come out strongly against the odd circumstances. Because of the strong patriarchal tradition, women suffer unbearable inequalities and injustices. They are considered as property, social liability and weak; their rights, their liberty, their voice, their movement and their wishes are all controlled by male members of the family. In fact, her destiny is “to be ruled by father in childhood, by the husband when she is young, and by her son when she is old” (Nasrin: Web). The community, through social, economic, religious and cultural institutions, privileges husband with the mechanism for perpetuating his control over wife’s sexuality, mobility and labor. Nasrin well understood the subaltern condition of women in society and therefore directed her entire effort in portraying the subjugated women in her works in order give voice to the voiceless. She paints her characters overshadowed by the patriarchal forces, the forces that leave no stone unturned to reduce female identity to nothingness but her women fight courageously against their victimization and emerge as empowered women. Her writings enable women to realize that they are also human beings, and have every right to live as independent human beings enjoying every social and cultural status. At the occasion of UNESCO- Madanjeet Singh Prize in 2004 she spoke, “through my writing I tried to encourage women to fight for their rights and freedom. My voice gave the chance to women to think differently” (Web).
Since Nasrin is a “protest writer” (Hanifa Deen 263) she considers silence as the root cause of women’s oppression. Therefore she tries to avail her characters every space to cry out their pain and protest against the injustices. Her novels are mainly focused on middle class educated women who, despite having ability and capability to create their own identity and status in society, are bounded by the inhibitions and restrictions that androcenteric culture and tradition put on them. Her novel, Revenge is centred on the story of a woman, Jhumur from Bangladesh who loves her husband, Haroon, dearly and devotedly but is treated badly by him. Though she was a faithful wife but the allegations of faithlessness and being forced to abort her child none other than by her dear husband breaks her internally and she turns into a wounded lioness whose cub has been devoured by the lion. A seed of revenge germinates in her wounded heart which is completed by conceiving a child from a man, Afzal, other than her husband. Taslima Nasrin, “a flagrant trespasser of social conventions and boundaries” (Lamia Karim 206) has always challenged the cultural conventions and moral boundaries that reconstructs Bangladeshi women as ‘good’ women

Domestic violence is a bitter truth of the so called civilized society prevailing from the ages always overlooked and invisible because of the belief that whatever happens within the four walls of a house is a “private” matter and any interference in it is regarded as the break of the privacy of the person. However, the issue of domestic violence was taken into account with the emergence of women’s movements with the opinion that what is personal is political and this kind of violence implies the misuse of power. Ameer Sultana in her article “Battered in the Safe Haven: Women and Domestic Violence” writes that the “patriarchal ideology perpetuates women’s dependence and replicates itself through violence in the private domain, thereby men try to control or deny women’s equality both in the public and private sphere” (Sultana 43).This theme of domestic violence is the very part of Nasrin’s novel. Revenge itself is dealt with this theme and is told in an angry and bitter manner against the myth of male superiority but not in self-pitying voice. Haroon tries to control his wife’s sexuality and motherhood whereas Jhumur struggles like a caged bird fluttering her wings in a society where women are kept in veil, where they are not allowed to call the name of their husbands, and have no independent identity. It looks as if a woman has no right over her body, her womb. No matter how much a woman suffers physical and mental agony it is the man who decides whether the child has to see the world or not and she is not required to be the decision maker about reproductive system. The baby was not only of Haroon but also hers yet she was his wife and therefore contracted to do what the husband commanded to no matter the accusation held no ground of truth consequently the mental trauma that she passes through due to forced abortion is revealed pathetically: “it was as if I was shrouded in a fog of silence. All feeling in my sinews was suspended, my body like mist beneath skin and bones, as if I no longer existed but had escaped from the prison of the physical to some obscure realm beyond human reach” (Revenge 74). At this stage the all times created myth about the sanctity of husband- wife relationship looks like an illusion devoid of any love and care. Nivedita Menon tells that no man can ever know about the truth of the child whether it is his or not, though a woman can but the patriarchy is anxious about its own image playing on the body of a woman. There is a saying, as Menon points out, “Motherhood is a biological fact, fatherhood is a sociological fiction” (Menon 7) and this “creates permanent anxiety for patriarchy, an anxiety that requires women’s sexuality to be strictly policed” (Menon 7). So, what Haroon does with the body of Jhumur on mere suspicion is nothing but his garrulous attitude as a patriarchal agent.

Nasrin has been advocating for a society devoid of inequality and gender based discrimination, a society in which every individual must have independent identity, self and dignity with no hegemonic concept. She never fails to expose the true picture of the patriarchal mentality where even the educated husband like Haroon starts doubting about his wife’s fidelity at just the absence of blood stains over the bed sheet at wedding night that laying bare a man’s narrow-minded desire to have a woman as an object of pleasure and not as a true companion. How ironical it is that he himself was in relationship with a woman before marriage to Jhumur but now he desires for a virgin girl as his wife and takes the first night blood as the only testimony of virginity whereas this is no reliable method of judging one’s chastity. His narrow minded attitude regarding the virginity of a woman turns horrible when Jhumur gets pregnant within the six weeks of the marriage and he blatantly points his finger at her character, “how would I know whose baby you had in your womb when you entered this house! You were in such a hurry to get married! You gave me no time to think” (Revenge 66). It is pity as well as ridiculous that the husband, who loved his wife, gets suspicious at her immediate pregnancy, compels her for abortion and again starts caring and loving her. It is hard to believe masculine mentality that suspending all feelings and emotions of a woman can use her as a reproductive machine. If he had doubt about her constancy he could have turn her out of the house but he prefers to cleanse her womb as if the womb was corrupt not the woman he loved and more than that it is not the woman that he loved rather her body. Nasrin’s protagonist stands against this kind of hypocritical approach of the male society and starts condemning it. That seems to be the reason Jhumur, who was brought up to believe in just one kind of female destiny—marriage and domestic adornment, neither leaves her husband, unlike the protagonist of Anita Desai’s novels, nor stays with Afzal, rather chooses to take perpetual revenge against her husband by conceiving and carrying someone else’s child that would always remind her of her husband’s tyranny and give her some kind of sense of redemption from the guilt that she did not fight to save unborn child. She confesses: “Suddenly a shocking thought came into my mind. What if I became pregnant by Afzal, not by Haroon? My child would be the fruit of my independence” (Revenge 124)

Love is one of the basic themes of Nasrin’s writing. Her female characters yearn for true love in their life but unfortunately their journey for true love remains a journey with a destination at least within the threshold. Whereas in her French Lover Nilanjana walks out of marital bond due to the bogus life with her husband, Kishenlal, Jhumur yearned for love in life from her lover cum husband Haroon but even her hopes are smashed in his careless irresponsive treatment and she feels compelled to be enchanted by the love stream of Afzal to fill up the void caused in her marred life. Any man or woman of patriarchal cultural structure would normally call Jhumur’s decision as illegal and against the values of domestic ethics. but what would a woman do when she is maligned and perpetrated with emotional and psychological torture by her husband. She takes shelter in the arms of a stranger because Haroon accused her of infidelity, a blame she never deserved and worst of all forced to kill unborn child for no crime. Therefore, the seeds of revenge were brewing in her mind that tempted her to avenge by cheating him. While bedding with Afzal she ponders over, “I had guarded my virginity in order to bestow a chaste body on my husband on my wedding night. I had never desired any man but Haroon” (Revenge 119). But what does Haroon return in exchange of her pure love except branding her as a faithless woman? Though she had the option to walk out of the relationship with Haroon in order to avoid hostility in the hands of a narrow-minded man, yet to live as a divorcee in Muslim family is much more painful than the pain of living with a man who was responsible for the murder of her unborn baby. Moreover she loved her husband despite that traumatic experience and her relationship was only a way of pacifying her spirit of anger. Moreover, she was a traditionalist enough to believe in marriage for life’s sake: “Though I’d my suffering with Haroon, I was enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage was for life. I couldn’t bring myself to live with the disgrace of a divorcee” (Revenge 124).

Jhumur wanted to protest against the disgrace and the oppression by violating the cultural code of the ‘family’ by having a child in her womb out of the marital threshold which she believed “would be the fruit of [her] independence” (Revenge 124) and “a protest, a way of taking revenge” (Revenge 159) Though her decision can never be justified in terns of patrilineal code of conduct yet she has her own reason and logic in stepping towards this revolutionary act. She confesses:

As I thought about my plan, I had no guilt—I was not a loose woman, I was merely taking my revenge, getting even. Except for this deception, I followed all the rules of society. I took care of Haroon and his family, kept them happy and well- fed while living a desolate, friendless existence. I had the right to claim something in return. (Revenge 125)

She loved her husband enough but there was something else nagging at her, she had to find “release from the mental and emotional prison in which tradition had incarcerated” (Revenge 124) her.  Her second pregnancy bestows her sense of triumph because it carried the seeds of vengeance well planned. She feels empowered in this act like a typical Taslima heroine who succeeds in saying “no” to the forces that annihilate the freedom and dignity of the second sex and consider her as a two- legged creature living on earth to keep men sexually satisfied. Jhumur asserts: “I had achieved a modicum of power in my marriage. Because of my pregnancy I was no longer the object of Haroon’s anger and spite, and I had become pregnant on my own terms” (Revenge 142). In Dr. Jamadar’s view, “this modicum of power” is instrumental in challenging the surveillance that patriarchal authority claims to set over female womb:

In Shodh, the material womb, a signifier of male control and patriarchal continuity has been appropriated by Jhumur to show how the surveillance fails to safeguard its interests. The entire system malfunctions when Jhumur appropriates power covertly and renders the surveillance futile. (Jamadar 74)

Thus her child from a man other than her husband serves as a “protest, a way of taking revenge” (Revenge 159) that was infused with the pain and suffering of all the women she knew. So the personal protest of a wife becomes a protest in holistic sense for all suffering women. Thus, through the character of Jhumur, according to Dr. Jamadar, Nasrin “exposes the ugly face of the sophisticated elites of society who under the cover of material well-being rob their women of all joy and fulfillment in marriage” (Jamadar 172). Taslima Nasrin’s way of arming her characters with weapons to fight back the evils enshrined in society is unique. She leaves no stone unturned to oppose the oppression of women and the weak in the hands of perpetrators of humanity. Her writings strongly criticize and unsettle those power structures that prolong violence against women whether it is social, political, domestic or religious. Moreover, since the protagonists of Nasrin are middle class urban women they have to walk through the tightrope of tradition and modernity, negotiating the balance between the spaces within and outside the threshold.

 

 

Works Cited

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Bande, Usha. Writing Resistance: A Comparative Study of the Selected Novels Women Writers. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2006.

Deen, Hanifa. The Crescent and the Pen: The Strange Journey of Taslima Nasreen. Praeger Publishers, 2006.

Deshpande, Shashi. “No (Hu) man is an Island”, The Times of India, 23 April 1992.

Sue Dickman. “Deshpande, Shashi. Interview with Sue Dickman”. Post Independence Voices in South Asian Writings. Eds. Malashri Lal, Alamgir Hashmi and Victor J. Ramraj. Doaba House, 2000.

Geetha, V. Patriarchy. Stree, 2007, Reprint 2015.

Jamadar, Nasreen Banu. Fiction of Taslima Nasrin: A Study in Feminism. Prestige Books International, 2016.

James, Scott. Domination and the Arts of Resistance:Hidden Transcripts. Yale University Press, 1990. Web. Feb. 2015.

Karim, Lamia. “Transnational politics of Reading and the [Un]making of Taslima Nasrin”, South Asian Feminisms. Eds. Ania Loomba and Ritty A. Lukose. Zuban, 2012. 205-223.

Lal, Malashri. The Law of the Threshold: Women Writers in Indian English. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1995.

Menon, Nivedita. Seeing like a Feminist. Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 2012.

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics. Columbia University Press, 1969, Reprint 2016.

Nasrin, Taslima. Revenge. Trans. Honor Moore. Vani Prakashan, 1992.

Sultana, Ameer. “Battered in the Safe Haven: Women and Domestic Violence”. Violence against Women: Issues and Perspectives. Eds. Prof. Aruna Goel, Dr. Manvinder Kaur and Dr. Ameer Sultana (Eds). Deep & Deep Publications Pvt. Ltd., 2006.