Reviewing women-centric cinema in Bangladesh

This week in North Philly Notes, Elora Halim Chowdhury, author of Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, writes about female representation in Muktijuddho films.

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A modern remake of Ajoy Kar’s 1961 film Saptapadi, Shameen Akhtar’s film Rina Brown (2017) unfolds intimate geographies of love and loss among individuals from India, and West and East Pakistan. One of few independent women filmmakers in Bangladesh, Akhtar offers a tale about unfulfilled dreams of love and freedom, set in contemporary Bangladesh (or, Dhaka City), that traces the return of Rina, an Anglo-Christian, to the now-independent nation that she left during the Bangladesh Liberation War (or, Muktijuddho). Forty years after the war’s end, Rina comes back to participate in a seminar about women in conflict. She seeks out her adolescent love, Darashiko, a Bengali Muslim freedom-fighter-turned-business-executive. Over the course of a long afternoon, the two reminisce about the fading aspirations of the nationalist struggle and its unreconciled trauma.

Though Rina’s past is indelibly linked to the history of Bangladesh, she is now a stranger whose suffering is incomprehensible to the post-war generation. As the couple look out on the sweeping urban landscape of Dhaka City, and think about what could have been, a vacant footbridge bereft of pedestrians serves as a metaphor to all that the war has torn asunder and imaginary borders, intractably entrenched. War changed everything, yet as Darashiko expresses forlornly, “We could not change the country.”

The poster for Rina Brown

I begin with this vignette from Akhtar’s film—a woman-centered Muktijuddho film—because it highlights what the essays in Ethical Encounters strive to do: reimagine a Muktijuddho gender ideology that through visual culture engages with, disrupts, and incites a new imaginary for gender justice. The collection defies conventional readings of the aesthetics and politics of Muktijuddho narratives. They tell stories of the birth of a nation from its margins, constructing a ‘Bangladeshi’ identity that embraces Bengali Muslims, as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis, coalescing into a national cinema that crystallizes an emergent Bangladeshi modernity. Yet at the same time, this modernity also relies on a middle-class and masculinist reading of the nation and its history. Ethical Encounters, inspired by women-centric cinema in Bangladesh, illuminates a feminine aesthetic as well as the politics of disruption and agency, healing, and reconciliation.

The poster for Meherjaan

The attempt to memorialize the varied experiences of women in the Liberation War is a way to advocate for and ingrain their complex, agential roles into the national history. Notably, instead of primarily focusing on state-level negotiations or masculine combat, films in this genre highlight the intimate, domestic, or “feminine” sphere as the site of struggle and meaning. By a “feminine” sphere, I mean those spaces that are usually considered feminized—and thus subordinated—within dominant patriarchal ideology. However, reframed, they can also be read as portrayals of nonconformity, mutuality, and solidarity. By allowing the viewer to remember, imagine, and work through traumatic events such as war and conflict through a feminine aesthetic, cinema can encourages appreciatiation of the moral choices and interpretive acts of women, previously consigned to only the “feminine” sphere, cast as passive victims or witnesses. Women in these films instead make unexpected, sometimes jarring, choices: nursing a wounded enemy soldier; seeking the assistance of a sympathetic Pakistani soldier after having been raped by others like him; and embracing a child of rape even when the nation rejects them. Recognizing these moral choices is a legacy of the war that viewers learn to appreciate through the cinematic medium, and these films are an evolving archive where diverse women’s stories are memorialized, as significant and precious as the memorials and museums the state erects to commemorate martyrs.

These films redefine what humanity, loss, and justice mean for victims, and reconfigure relationships between viewer, witness, and ally. They point to the open wound that 1971 still is, especially for women. This foundational trauma remains constitutive of the nation, and Muktijuddho cinema plays a pivotal role in constructing—and disrupting—the gendered subjectivities beget by the war’s legacy. Women’s cinema, and human rights cinema, capture more broad, transnational visions of feminist filmmaking. They recast the relationships of women to war—as plunder of the nation, as dislodged women from that nation—and question the terms of what constitutes the human in these fraught circumstances.

Ultimately, women-centric Muktijuddho films emplot global human rights narratives and aesthetics that defy reductive and monolithic renditions of social reality. They offer complexity and nuance beyond just a tussle between victims and aggressors, loss and triumph, and colonization and liberation. Simultaneously, they strive for more ethical recognitions, drawing on a multiplicity of histories, struggles, and experiences. Woman-centered films provide an alternative reading toward decolonizing notions of agency, freedom, and justice; they imagine a new kind of feminist knowledge-making.

Celebrating Women’s History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Women’s History Month. Use promo code TWHM21 for 30% off all our Women’s Studies titles. Sale ends April 15, 2021.

Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, by Shirley Jennifer Lim, shows how Anna May Wong’s work shaped racial modernity and made her one of the most significant actresses of the twentieth century.

The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gap, by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, traces the origins of the gender wage gap to part-time teenage work, which sets up a dynamic that persists into adulthood.

Feminist Post-Liberalism, by Judith Baer, reconciles liberalism and feminist theory.

Feminist Reflections on Childhood: A History and Call to Action, by Penny A. Weiss, recovers a history of feminist thought and activism that demands greater voice and respect for young people.

Good Reasons to Run: Women and Political Candidacy, edited by Shauna L. Shames, Rachel I. Bernhard, Mirya R. Holman, and Dawn Langan Teele, how and why women run for office.

Gross Misbehavior and Wickedness: A Notorious Divorce in Early Twentieth-Century America, by Jean Elson, a fascinating story of the troubled marriage and acrimonious divorce of Nina and James Walker elucidates early twentieth-century gender and family mores.

Motherlands: How States Push Mothers Out of Employment, by Leah Ruppanner challenges preconceived notions of the states that support working mothers.

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall, an anthology that celebrates the life and work of a major African American writer.

Their Day in the Sun: Women in the Manhattan Project, by Ruth H. Howes and Caroline C. Herzenberg, tells the hidden story of the contribution of women in the effort to develop the atomic bomb.

Undermining Intersectionality: The Perils of Powerblind Feminism, by Barbara Tomlinson, a sustained critique of the ways in which scholars have engaged with and deployed intersectionality.

Women Take Their Place in State Legislature: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses, by Anna Mitchell Mahoney, investigates the opportunities, resources, and frames that women utilize to create legislative caucuses.

Women’s Empowerment and Disempowerment in Brazil: The Rise and Fall of President Dilma Rousseff, by Pedro A.G. dos Santos and Farida Jalalzai, explains what the rise and fall of Brazil’s first and only female president can teach us about women’s empowerment.

Observations on the anniversary of the Partition of India

This week in North Philly Notes, Kavita Daiya, author of the forthcoming Graphic Migrationswrites about global media representations of migration on the 73rd anniversary of the Partition of India.

What do the Google commercial “Reunion,” the Bollywood film Raazi (Agree), Shauna Singh Baldwin’s award-winning novel What The Body Remembers  and the oral history project 1947 Partition Archive all have in common? They all do transnational memory work and remember the mass migrations of the 1947 Partition of India.

This past weekend marked the 73rd anniversary of the decolonization and division of India, and the end of British colonialism. It also marked the creation of two independent nations: Pakistan came into being on August 14, 1947, and India became a new secular democratic nation on August 15, 1947. The partitioning of India in 1947 generated the world’s largest mass migration in under nine months: between 12 and 16 million people migrated across the newly etched borders.

Graphic MigrationsIn my forthcoming book Graphic Migrations, I describe the legacies of this pivotal moment in British and South Asian history, with a focus on migrant and refugee experiences. As such, this book uncovers the effects of this Partition on both India and the South Asian diaspora in North America. I am especially interested in how different media represent the precarity of migrants’ and refugees’ lives, as well as their descendants. I map how this precarity is memorialized across media, in ways that create empathy and solidarity for the shared humanity of migrants and citizens.

For example, I analyze South Asian American fiction by writers including Shauna Singh Baldwin and Bapsi Sidhwa as well as Hindi art films like Shyam Benegal’s Mammo; Bollywood cinema, as well as the new genre I call “border-crossing” advertising. In addition, I discuss graphic narratives from Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s This Side, That Side: Restorying Partition, the Digital Humanities oral history project 1947 Partition Archive as well as photography by Margaret Bourke-White and Annu Palakunnathu Matthew. This book’s archive is thus eclectic and cross-media, capturing how the Partition migrations are inscribed or erased in public culture in India and its diaspora.

Graphic Migrations is poised at the intersection of Asian American Studies and Postcolonial Studies. It draws upon and extends new directions in Asian American Studies, especially Critical Refugee Studies.  These new directions take a transnational lens to understand how twentieth century conflicts and displacement in Asia have shaped Asian American history. My book’s feminist orientation means that gender is a central part of the story I tell. Talal Asad’s influential theory of the secular in Formations of the Secular is also central here, given that the Partition focalized religious difference. Central to this book’s story is the inspiration of the noted political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s brilliant analysis of statelessness, which, as she argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism, was the defining feature and product of the twentieth century.

My book considers several issues that emerge out of the 1947 Partition and its transnational impact. It explores the complexities of statelessness in India as well as South Asia, and asks: Why has this momentous displacement not been widely memorialized, until recently? How did refugees’ stories, labor, and losses shape ideas about religion, secularism, and belonging in public culture? How were female refugees’ experiences different, and with what consequences? What alternative modes of imagining community and planetary cohabitation, including ‘the secular,’ do stories about statelessness offer us today?

Graphic Migrations is timely and relevant now. More people than even before are migrating or displaced because of war, conflict, poverty, environmental devastation, and other reasons. By one estimate, there are 10 million stateless people, and there are 272 million migrants in the world today. This raises urgent issues about human rights and social justice for nations around the world, who must work together to end statelessness.

My book is a profound reminder of the contemporary stakes of studying the experiences and impact of decolonization and nation-formation in 1947 South Asia, in a transnational feminist mode.

A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

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