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Asian Women Are Ending Their Silence

Taslima Nasrin, whose novel Shame was criticized by Islamic fundamentalists in her native Bangladesh, now lives in France and Sweden.

Time, Aug. 23, 1999

A Bengali proverb has it that anger turns men into kings but women into whores. Bimala, the main character in Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's novel Home and the World, is a housewife who breaks the rules and steps out of her home to join the protest against colonial rule. This is around 1905, a time when women in South Asia had just started to become politically conscious. Many became involved in the underground armed struggle. Others joined Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent campaign. The struggle for independence gave them a legitimate way to come out and see the world.

In Tagore's story, Bimala eventually realizes that she has neglected her husband because of her nationalistic fervor, a militancy gone awry. About to lose both home and world, Bimala falls at her husband's feet and begs for forgiveness. It is a story that reflects the choices women had to face at that time. Of course, these choices were available only to Hindu women. The role of Muslim women at that time was insignificant. A notable exception was Rokeya Sakhwat Hussein, who fought against the wearing of veils and tried to spread education among girls.

Education has been women's biggest victory of this century. In the early years, orthodox critics warned that the education of females would make their breasts shrink, their milk dry up and their wombs distort or twist. In 1901, there were just 1,170 female pupils in primary school in all of Bengal. A hundred years later, the literacy level among women has gone up all over Asia. But even today women are expected to serve their husbands, maintain comfortable homes and raise children.

Still, there has been some progress. For example, women in the subcontinent have changed their clothing customs. Earlier, a sari - a single, long piece of thin cotton - was tied around the body. Now almost every woman also wears an underskirt, a blouse, underwear, shoes, some even stockings. The pioneers had to fight to adopt such clothing in a male-dominated society that criticized women even for wearing spectacles. But they persisted. For Hindus, a law was passed to ban sati, the practice in which a wife immolated herself on her dead husband's pyre. Other laws banned child marriage and polygamy and made it legal for widows to remarry.

No constitution in any Asian country today makes a distinction between the rights it gives men and those it affords women. But in reality, women are still oppressed. They are forced to remain malnourished, illiterate and unemployed sex objects or child-bearing machines. Women may have become heads of government in many countries - India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, even in Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Bangladesh. But as any chauvinist would explain, these women are mere puppets - and it's the men who hold the strings.

That may not always be true, but it is obvious that having a female in a position of power does not mean that every woman has won her rights. Examples of cruelty toward women still abound. In Saudi Arabia, a woman can be arrested simply for driving a car. Afghan women have recently regressed to complete enslavement, unable even to appear in public unless covered from head to toe. Elsewhere, horrors such as child marriage, dowry, domestic violence, malnutrition, wife-killing, rape and trafficking of women still go on.

A secular Turkey is endangered by religious fundamentalists. Pakistan might become a theocratic state. Bangladesh is no longer a secular country. In India, extremists are threatening the religious balance. Japan has been influenced by the West for a long time, but with patriarchy so deeply rooted it is still difficult for women to obtain equal rights. At the same time, positive examples can also be cited. In Burma and Indonesia, women are providing inspiring leadership. Iranian women recently broke the rules and left their homes to cheer the national soccer team in a stadium. In Pakistan, Tehmina Durrani has written a book showing her anger against religious leaders. Bangladeshi sculptor Shamim Sikdar continues to work despite threats from the fundamentalists.

The path for women was never smooth. They have had to fight even for a chance to walk. There was always a conspiracy to keep them mute. It is said that the quieter a woman, the better she is. But throughout this century many women have spoken out. They showed their anger against their oppressors and did not care that they were called whores. Non-governmental organizations are helping women become self-reliant in some countries. Globalization has its good side. I am proof of it. After I spoke out against the lack of freedom for women in Bangladesh, religious fundamentalists forced me into exile - where I have found support and friends. Once the idea of freedom of expression without fear of reprisal becomes universal, the progress of Asian women will no longer be outweighed by talk of their plight. Right now, Asia badly needs more angry women to take up the fight for justice and equality.