Monday, November 06, 2006

The Bangla Heroine

Byline by M J Akbar: The Bangla Heroine

The collective noun is a poor cousin of the proper; the singular belongs to a higher caste than the plural. There was a crucial omission from this year’s list of Nobel Prize winners. Muhammad Yunus deserved the award for peace, but only half of it. The other half should have gone to the women of Bangladesh.

Yunus’ now famous micro-credit idea was considered "impossible" three decades ago only because no one trusted the poor. Banks are in the business of capital. Capital is the business of the rich. The rich have only one law: the business of money is to make money. Banks don’t mind being cheated by the rich, as any list of their bad debts will prove. But they will never permit themselves to be cheated by the poor. Trust, in their philosophy, leaves dark stains on the balance sheet. They would rather compromise with the greed of the rich than the need of the poor.

The poor are not mislaid angels. They are as vulnerable to temptation as any other class. The best decision that Yunus made was not to help the poor, but to help them through women. He trusted the right gender. His experiment might have collapsed if he had handed out little packets to men. Women prefer the human development index to the stock exchange. They know the value of food, cloth, education and healthcare. They give birth and understand death. If Bangladesh is slowly emerging out of the basket into which Henry Kissinger once dumped it (he called the country a "basket case") it is because women have become the prime movers of economic development. The Nobel citation confirms this: "Micro credit has proved to be an important liberating force in societies where women in particular have to struggle against repressive social and economic conditions. Economic growth and political democracy cannot achieve their full potential unless the female half of humanity participates on an equal footing with the male."

Spot on.

Ninety per cent of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim. It is these Bangla Muslim women who have made Yunus a Nobelist. They are also a visible challenge to the stereotyped image of Muslim women, particularly in America and Europe, as shrouded in veils. I hope photographs of women, who deserve all the credit they can be given, accompany all features on Yunus. None of them will have their faces covered.

Almost all of them will have their heads covered. The sari is an excellent example of modest dress. One piece of cloth covers all parts of the body, including the head. In all eastern societies, both men and women have traditionally covered their heads. Those who do not wear the sari, use a scarf or a dupatta. Men wore the burnoose, fez, skin or cloth cap. Men’s dresses, as much women’s, reached the ankles, and in neither gender were private parts flaunted in the manner in which, say, the codpiece stressed certain physical assets, or disguised liabilities, among men in the western middle ages. Eastern Christians followed eastern norms, as they do in Kerala. Hindus and Sikhs would never contemplate of entering a temple or gurdwara with their heads uncovered.

The full-veiled Muslim is a small part of the truth, and not by any means the whole truth. A valid argument can be made for change, but that argument will not be won through either legal compulsion or public contempt.

Jack Straw had every right to raise the issue of the full veil. The problem was not the message but the messenger. Muslims are loath to listen to lectures from a man who is one of the principal perpetrators of war and havoc in Iraq, a man of vast power who used a lie and defends many more in the pursuit of an immoral and unacceptable war in which hundreds of thousands of innocents have died. I don’t know how many of you saw the interview with former Iranian President Khatami on BBC on Friday the third. I suppose if he had said something hysterical media would have quoted him endlessly. But he supported a moderate form of dress, pointing out as so many others have that Islam insists on modest dress for both sexes. Mr Khatami was leader of a country which has a women’s wing in its armed forces, and can be seen marching in parades. The women wear scarves, not the face-veil. I suppose it is a bit difficult to shoot the enemy wearing a face-veil.

President Khatami made a much more important point, which Britain needs to address: that it is the politics of injustice, and not religion, that is fuelling anger among young Muslims in countries like Britain. They cannot understand the carnage in and international indifference towards Palestine. They feel demonised and alienated in their own countries. They believe that the legitimate war on terrorists has illegitimate by-products, like the use of demonisation to gain public support for quasi-imperial adventures. They want to be accepted as themselves, and not as clones of another culture. All minorities need space for identity. They should not take such need to excess, for the good reason that it is silly; but anger will breed a touch of excess. At least the veil is non-violent.

The question that should worry Straw is why British Muslim women, who have not grown up in a conservative environment — this perfectly serious pun is intentional — are asserting themselves increasingly in this manner. Perhaps the anger is greater because Labour was the natural home of the British Muslim vote.

Multi-culturalism is no longer just a national phenomenon in some countries; it is an international fact. The success of western colonisation was bound to leave its impact on the dress code. You may have seen a million pictures of Iraq by now. I hope you have noticed that the urban Muslim bride wears a wedding dress straight out of a western Christian ceremony. Western dress was a vital part of Mustafa Kemal’s reforms in Turkey, and the Arab regions of the old Ottoman Empire paid their homage to success in similar ways. One of the most remarkable facts of 20th century social history is the triumph of the trouser in male, and now female, dress.

Or maybe not. Maybe the real phenomenon is the necktie. Trousers are practical, useful and can be elegant or comfortable or even both. I cannot think of a single practical reason for wearing a necktie. It is no substitute for a muffler; it neither hides nor protects. There is no logic to its shape. And yet it has become the definition of formality across the whole world. Even Communism has succumbed to the tie: Mao jackets are no longer worn by the Chinese politburo.

I actually like wearing this utterly useless bit of hangman’s rope. I enjoy wearing ties in a range of colours, and take more of them than I need to on a visit to Britain. But I wonder what my reaction would be if the British immigration authorities passed an order that you could not enter Britain without a tie.

Marketing, persuasion and allure are far better alchemists of social change than political compulsion.

The most serious problem in so many Muslim countries is gender bias, and this can exist with or without the veil. Gender bias is hardly unique to Muslims; Europe corrected itself only less than a century ago.

I believe that the West could not have seen its dramatic rise in prosperity without eliminating gender bias, and I even more strongly believe that Muslim societies and nations cannot find a future without making women equal partners in economic growth. This is the challenge of the 21st century, and those who rise up to the challenge will find a proportionate rise in wealth, stability and the happiness index.

Bangladesh’s women should have shared the Nobel Peace Prize for more than one reason. The woman who saved her family with micro-credit is a heroine of her nation and an inspiration to the world.

No comments: