Dhaka, Bangladesh
Motherhood and state terror

Motherhood and state terror

TODAY is Mother's Day, a day that is not observed on the same date the world over. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, a day known as 'Mothering Sunday' was celebrated from the 16th to the 20th centuries to honour the Virgin Mary, also known as Mother Mary. People, who generally attended the church nearest to where they lived ('daughter' church), returned to their 'mother' church on Mothering Sunday, which was three weeks before Easter Sunday. The observance of Mothering Sunday declined in the first decades of the 20th century only to be reborn as a separate day after the Second World War - modern and secular set aside for expressing 'appreciation' for one's mother. Mother's Day in the UK and Ireland this year was on 11th March. The history of Mother's Day is different in the USA. It was founded by Anna Marie Jarvis, expressedly to commemorate mothers for rendering 'matchless service' to humanity. Anna's mother Ann Reeves Jarvis cared for wounded soldiers on both the Union and Confederate side of the Civil War, taught religion ('Sunday school'), and organised Mothers Day Work Clubs to confront public health issues. When Ann died in 1905, Anna vowed to found a memorial mother's day; she campaigned by organising gatherings, handing out white carnations, her mother's favourite flower, at Sunday schools, and writing thousands of letters to lobby government officials. Her efforts led to the growth of a social movement demanding a national holiday. In 1914, the second Sunday of May was established as Mother's Day. President Woodrow Wilson urged Americans to display national flags 'as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.' Initially, the notion of Mother's Day was a 'fairly radical' idea, part of the broader movement for women's rights and equality; it also signalled a call for peace after the carnage of the Civil War. The information provided above is pretty widely available on the internet, what is harder to come by is answers to questions which dent the idea of a universal mother, such as, what impact did this declaration have on black mothers in America then? An important question, given that 36-year old Meghan Markle - soon to be married to Prince Harry of the British royal family - is the daughter of a mixed marriage, and Meghan's mother, writes Margo Jefferson, was often mistaken for her 'nanny' in the prosperous, largely white, Los Angeles neighbourhood where she grew up. Jefferson says, it has happened to every black American woman she knows who has a mixed-race child. Or, what did Mother's Day in the UK mean to white mothers, mostly single, who were forced to give up their children for adoption under the Child Migrants Programme? It ran from 1920 to 1970, 150,000 children, from 3-14 years, were labelled 'orphans' and sent away to Australia and Canada, often without the permission of their parents. The state, voluntary church organisations, and well known charities were involved in the programme, it aimed at providing the children with 'happier lives in the under-populated Commonwealth.' Many of the children, elderly now, have spoken of long, loveless years of servitude and hard labour on remote farms, state orphanages and church institutions, of Christian Brothers who 'acted like overseers on a chain gang, shouting and whipping,' of sexual abuse, and taunts of being the 'sons of whores.' To return to Anna Marie Jarvis, founder of Mother's Day. She had wanted a simple, thoughtful and reverential day, not a commercial one. A printed card 'means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world!' Anna reportedly called florists, makers of candy and greeting cards, including Hallmark, 'charlatans, bandits, pirates.' Mother's Day is one of the biggest money-makers in the US, consumers last year reportedly spent $23.6 billion to celebrate the day. BENGAL (both west Bengal and Bangladesh) is a land marked by the 'cult of motherhood.' It exists, writes Jasodhara Bagchi, in both the great and little traditions. The fertility of the Gangetic delta lends to the representation of Bengal as 'an affectionate mother, ever ready to respond to the demands of her children,' and Bengali mothers forever symbolise 'unstinting affection, manifested in an undying spirit of self-sacrifice for the family.' Bengal is probably the only part of the Indian subcontinent where children and their spouses use ma to address their mother/in-law, where the suffix of ma can be added while addressing kinswomen of a previous generation (kaki-ma, phuphu-amma, khalamma, mami-ma, father's brother's wife, father's sister, mother's sister, mother's brother's wife), where women of a junior generation, daughters and daughters-in-law, can also be called ma, where servants can use it to address the mistress of the household, where unknown women in the street can be addressed as ma, and where, among the Hindus, particular goddesses and deities are venerated as ma. In our patriarchal worldview, mothers are irreplaceable because of the biological process of shaping the baby in the womb and suckling him after birth, wives, on the other hand, are replaceable, being (mere) repositories of 'seed.' (Veena Das). The ideology of motherhood was seized upon during the last quarter of the 19th century by swadeshi nationalists to distinguish the colonised Bengali man from his English rulers, argues Bagchi, and recounts how the avant-garde poet of the Bengal Reniassance Michael Madhusudhan Dutt, described the great social reformer and writer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, he was a man 'with the courage of a lion, the energy of an Englishman and the heart of a Bengali mother.' The colonised claimed motherhood as the domain which was 'distinctly their own,' deploying it to contrast the east (spiritual/feminine) from the west (material/ masculine). Swami Vivekananda asserted, the idea of womanhood in the west is 'concentrated' as the wife, but in India the ideal woman 'is the mother, the mother first and the mother last.' His disciple, Sister Nivedita (Margaret Elizabeth Noble before her conversion) added, the cult of mother worship in the west centring around the Virgin Mary, while 'tender and precious' - is incomplete. The symbolic representation of India as 'the mother' was first made by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay in his song Vande Mataram, which was later part of his proto-nationalist novel Anandamath (1881). Abanindranath Tagore's iconic painting, Bharat Mata (Mother India), portraying the country as a Hindu goddess, came later (1905). These, writes Bagchi, 'helped to Hinduise the tone of nationalism in Bengal,' and to fix Bengali women's 'ultimate identity' as motherhood. The rhetoric of motherland in swadeshi nationalism was purely ideological, argues Bagchi, it gave an impression of women's empowerment while hiding the ugly reality of women lacking 'control over their own reproductive powers' - evidenced in wives dying as they tried to produce yet another son or being deserted for failing to give birth to a male child or the nutrition discrimination faced by caste Hindu widows, perversely, also by mothers neglecting their daughters or torturing their daughters-in-law. In Rabindranath Tagore's song Amar sonar Bangla, ami tomay bhalobashi (My golden Bengal, I love you) - originally written in 1905, when Bengal was partitioned along religious lines to undermine the Indian nationalist movement - Bengal was presented not as the mother goddess of Hindu revivalists, but as a unified territory where, as Reece Jones remarks, 'the rural [mother] is presented as the iconic essence of Bengal and Bengali-ness' - fertile, yielding golden harvests and honey-tinged smiles. It became the national anthem of Bangladesh after it won independence in December 1971 from (West) Pakistan. One of the compelling stories about Bangladesh's liberation struggle was recounted to me by Naila Khan, a freedom fighter, as was her father, Colonel Quazi Nooruzzaman, a sector commander, who died in 2011. An Indian general had remarked in awe to the Colonel soon after the war ended, Bangladesh won independence because masses of mothers sent away their young sons to the battlefield to fight for independence. Zaman bhai had told his daughters this story more than once, said Naila, and in his last public engagement, had voiced deep regret that the role of women in the liberation struggle had not been documented. He had wept. History-writing, particularly oral histories of mothers of freedom fighters belonging to different religious and ethnic backgrounds, different geographical regions, would help complexify the unified nationalist narrative of self-sacrificing Bengali motherhood. They would offer us a nuanced understanding (were mothers expected to send their sons to fight for independence? was shame attached to mothers who dissuaded their sons from going? what role did familial and household circumstances play in the decision to send sons/in the son's decision to take up arms? did war challenge gender roles?) which Zaman bhai, a critical-thinking patriot, would have been among the first to appreciate. THE problem of the concept of motherhood (as distinct to the problems of mothering) is not only its definition and re-definition by patriarchy (cult of motherhood, representing colonised India as 'mother'), but also that, as black American feminists and Third World feminist theorists have pointed out, most theories and concepts of motherhood centre on the experiences of white, middle class, heterosexual mothers. In the Western tradition, says Andre O'Reilly, mothering is the work women do in the privacy of their homes, it has no political import or cultural value. This tradition has been partly shaped by the increasing medicalisation of pregnancy and childbirth in the 19th and 20th centuries, it has led to the marginalisation of women's knowledge, to the normalisation of the idea that a pregnant woman is a sick woman. Modern medicine does not consider pregnancy to be a natural or healthy state but one of 'high risk' which requires constant surveillance and intervention (caesarean births, routine electronic foetal monitoring). The dominant notion that motherhood is private, and not a site of political struggle, was collectively defied by Argentina's 'mothers of the disappeared.' The mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, referred to in brief as the Mothers (with a cap P) have, as Marguerite Guzman Bouvard fittingly terms it, 'revolutionised' the concept of motherhood. Argentina's military junta, 'one of the most flagrant and brutal military dictatorships,' was led by General Jorge Rafael Videla. The regime lasted 7 years (1976-1983) during which an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 people were 'disappeared.' Argentina's 'Dirty War' was part of the infamous Operation Condor, a secret plan, organised by military regimes of six Latin American countries to contribute their efforts to hunt down and murder left-wing opponents. The operation received the Pentagon and CIA's logistical support and military aid, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger congratulated the junta for 'wiping out' terrorism. THE 'good' mother in Argentina was invisible, she would stay at home, concerned only about caring for her children and husband. Traditionally, women venturing outside the private domain would be associated with deviance and subversion; they would be characterised as 'mad women' or 'prostitutes,' as 'nonmothers' or 'antimothers.' The Catholic Church (complicit with the military dictatorship) decreed that the 'good' mother was passive and submissive like the Virgin Mary. Those abducted in the Dirty War included trade unionists, workers, students, intellectuals, nuns, priests, and even pregnant women and babies. The military regime set up over 340 secret concentration camps in the country to imprison and torture the abducted. The great majority of the victims were murdered, many would be drugged, loaded onto military aircrafts and dropped naked to drown in the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic Ocean. Pregnant activists would be kept alive only until the birth of the baby; an estimated 500 children were given away for adoption to childless military couples to raise as their own. In April 1977, a year after the military coup, fourteen women gathered in the Plaza de Mayo, the street across the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital. They wanted to know their children's whereabouts. Since the security force would not let them gather and hold public meetings, they began to circle around the Plaza. Thus began their silent weekly protests, held every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 pm. Increasing numbers of women, mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, joined; in October, they took out a half-page ad in a national newspaper demanding that those detained, should be released. Fourteen Mothers, including their leader, and a nun, were arrested and disappeared in December, but the Mothers continued their campaign. They were middle-aged women, mostly housewives, those employed belonged to occupations traditionally reserved for women, i.e., schoolteachers, social work, retail sales. They were the only group who dared to confront a repressive military regime, and openly. Their numbers soon swelled; in 1979, they constituted themselves as an organisation promoting democratic values. The grandmothers grouped together, they named themselves Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo; after the constitutional government was restored, they were able to locate and identify 120 of their abducted children by DNA tests (2016). Many of the Mothers, writes Bouvard, described the first weeks and months after the disappearances as being 'times of hopelessness,' lying curled up on their beds, in pain, unable to comprehend what had happened. But it was the Mothers who were the first to leave their homes in search of their children, for the fathers had to go to work. Obsessed with getting back their children safely, they had thought it would be relatively easy. Initially, each Mother had thought she was alone in the tragedy that had befallen her, but 'as they pursued their dreary rounds of prison, police stations, and military barracks in search of their children' they noticed that other women too, similiar worried faces, were waiting, or travelling on the same buses into the city. They began talking to each other, comparing notes. The Mothers had combined love with anger from the very beginning, love for those they had lost, and anger towards the system that committed such brutalities. What impelled them was not any political theory or affiliation, nor was it feminist theory. (To be continued) (From previous yesterday's issue) Their consciousness, militancy and activism was rooted in motherhood. They deftly coopted the language of those in power, the junta's image of the 'good' mother was one who was non-political, the Mothers seized on it and claimed that as 'good' mothers they were responsible for protecting and caring for their child. The ultimate victim of the junta's policy of disappearance was the 'family' writes Bouvard, its 'stability, structure and privacy were deeply affected.' Nora Cortinas, 68-years old, while speaking of her son Gustavo's political involvement and solidarity work with the poor, said, 'We emerged out of a great tragedy, and that same tragedy gave birth to a political movement that extends beyond borders.....It is sad that our separation from domestic and private life and our leap into public life happened because our children were disappeared. But now there is no turning back.' After the military junta fell, the Mothers focused their efforts on freeing those who had been imprisoned; they claimed they were 'Mothers of all oppressed.' Azucena Villaflor, one of the founders of the movement, wrote the first slogan before she too was disappeared, 'All for all, and all the children are ours.' Hebe de Bonafini, another founder, spoke of a state of permanent pregnancy. 'On the one hand, I feel that one day they will return... On the other hand, I feel this state of permanent pregnancy. I always feel my children inside me.' DESPITE enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary detentions, the human rights situation in present day Bangladesh is a far cry from Argentina's Dirty War. Only 400 or some more - including a large number of opposition political activists, academics, students, lawyers, physicians, and a former ambassador - have been 'disappeared' during the present administration of Sheikh Hasina. But tell that to a mother. The number is higher if one includes those who were abducted by state agencies and/or murdered by the ruling party or any of its front organisations, whose bodies have been found. Higher still, if one includes deaths where state agencies may not have been involved in the killing, but are, beyond reasonable doubt, implicated in the cover-up. So? Still, a far cry from Argentina's 'system of state terrorism.' But tell that to a mother. Tell that to Nurun Nahar Mirza, mother of Meherun Runi, a senior reporter at ATN Bangla, who was murdered (alongwith her husband Sagar Sarowar, news editor at Maasranga TV) in early 2012. Home minister Sahara Khatun had publicly announced the killers would be arrested within 48 hours. Six years on, no charge sheet yet. As of February this year, the progress report of the investigation has been extended 54 times. Tell that to Kalpana Rani Das, mother of Biswajit Das, a tailor, who was publicly hacked to death by ruling student party thugs in late 2012, mistking him to be an opposition (BNP) activist. The hacking was caught on video, the faces of the killers are clearly recognisable; officers of the local police station had stood and watched. The home minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir had initially denied Chhatra League's involvement, exposed as a lie later. Of the 21 suspects, 13 are absconding; the High Court's acquittal of four murder suspects last year 'pained' the family immeasurably. Kalpana had said, we are poor people, we will not get justice. Tell that to Rawnak Rehana, mother of Tanwir Muhammad Taqi, a young student who was murdered in March 2013 by family members of ruling party influentials (additional DG of RAB, March 2014), possibly to punish his father, Rafiur Rabbi, a cultural activist who had led protests against the mafia-like corruption which throttles life in Narayanganj city. Five years on, no charge sheet yet. Deprived of their children, deprived of any hope of justice, these mothers grieve, I always feel my children inside me. Token human chains at most by women's organisations, either allied to the ruling party or fearful of incurring the government's wrath. NGOisation has transformed them into service providers, development partners of the state. Motherhood is all about, only about, helping decrease maternal, and infant, mortality rates. Motherhood is private, passive, it must submit to state repression and terror. Each mother is alone in her tragedy, all the children are not ours. I dedicate this piece to Nurun Nahar Mirza, Kalpana Rani Das, Rawnak Rehana and all other mothers, whose children are the victims of state terror.

Share |