April 6, 2022
DHAKA – It is the month of Ramadan. During this time, I find that our “Muslimness” peaks. Incidentally, this year, Ramadan coincides with Pahela Boishakh. During this time, I find that our “Bengaliness” also peaks. During Ramadan, those who haven’t prayed a single prayer the whole year are suddenly found touting religious sayings, spitting on sidewalks and judging anyone who isn’t fasting for whatever personal reasons. And as Pahela Boishakh approaches, we suddenly find those who regularly listen to “Tera Pyaar Hukkah Bar” immerse themselves in Rabindra Sangeet, eat panta bhaat in each meal, and crinkle their noses at anyone who isn’t speaking shuddho Bangla. As these two parts of our identities peak and collide, the age-old conflict of “Muslim first or Bengali first” emerges once again in the psyche of Bangladeshis who, for the past five decades, have failed miserably at grasping the concept of dual identities.
The recent incident where a policeman harassed and hurled abuse at a teacher of Tejgaon College after seeing her wearing a teep on her forehead while she was going to work, I suspect, is rooted in this age-old conflict. I have gone over the incident over and over again in my head, and tried to come up with some kind of reasoning for the man’s behaviour.
The conundrum is presented by a dot on the forehead. I suspect the man saw a woman with a teep on her forehead walking across the street, and thought it his moral duty to correct her behaviour. Of course, it was his moral duty—he is, after all, of the blessed male population. He wears a uniform with the purpose of protecting law and order. Of course, a tiny dot on someone’s head presents enough of a threat to the faithfulness and morality of the entire nation. After all, such blatant display of Hindu symbolism cannot be tolerated! So he took it upon himself to correct her behaviour.
Are teeps truly a Hindu religious symbol? In India, yes. Dating as far back as 1500-1200 BC, Vedic texts, which many Indians still follow today, indicate that the bindi is used to mark the Ajna Chakra, or more commonly known as the “third eye.” The Ajna Chakra is located in the middle of the forehead and considered a sacred place in the body. Vedic texts link this chakra to wisdom, spiritual insight, and an awakening of the mind.
But, while the origins of the coloured dot worn at the centre of one’s forehead may have been Hindu, it has since evolved in its role as an adornment across the subcontinent, with no necessary religious connotation attached to it. To continue to link it to its Vedic origins would be like linking the sacrifices we make during Eid-ul-Azha to pagan animal sacrifice rituals. Was ritualistic animal sacrifice historically pagan? Sure. Is that the reason why we sacrifice animals during our Eid? No. So, then, why is wearing a dot on one’s forehead, something so decidedly personal, repeatedly used to mark women to be of a certain creed?
More importantly, so what if it is? Why do I have to justify what I choose to wear or not wear? Why would I be abused for wearing something that is entirely harmless?
I suppose it must be done, yet again, to control the woman’s body.
In 2015, in London, UK, a British Muslim woman was assaulted by a group of women who ripped off her hijab in a racist attack as she went to collect her children from school. Last year in October, in Ottawa, Canada, a Muslim woman walking down the street in the middle of the afternoon was attacked by another woman who forcefully removed her hijab. In September 2021, a Muslim woman living in the Austrian capital Vienna was physically harmed as she was subjected to a racist attack for wearing hijab. Countless such incidents have happened where a woman’s expression of identity has been attacked. These attacks are no different than the attack on the teep. And it begs to be noted that the assailants who attack a woman’s expression of identity aren’t necessarily male either.
In all honesty, I wasn’t there and I couldn’t know what this particular policeman was thinking. I have, however, noticed a pattern in people’s thinking in my own personal experiences of social interaction. Up until recently, my daily attire consisted of a saree, a hijab and a teep. As a result, I have been described as a walking, talking question mark. My faith has always been questioned. My understanding and practice of religion has always been questioned. My hijab has always been questioned. My Bengaliness has also always been questioned—as has my identifying myself as a feminist.
And often, this incessant questioning and unresolved confusion leads to over-simplified conclusions of “She’s a heretic,” “She’s a hypocrite” or, the kindest, “She’s confused.” After much deliberation, I have decided that what I wear, how I wear it, who I worship and how are entirely my business. So, I impolitely decline to answer any questions related to what I am wearing and how I worship.
But I have come to the difficult and amusing realisation that I will probably challenge the status quo with everything that I put on or remove from my body. Whether I wrap myself with more fabric or less, I will make a political statement. I think the same is true for every woman walking down the street who doesn’t fit into the pristine, well-defined boundaries and demarcations of proper, well-behaved women set by society. And so, little things like what you are wearing moves beyond indulgence (or acts of faith) and becomes an act of political warfare. Every article of clothing, every accessory is a weapon in the warfare against patriarchy.
So, what are we to do? Accessorise, of course. Make the personal political.
Exist. That, in itself, is enough.
Shagufe Hossain, a development practitioner, is the founder and former executive director of Leaping Boundaries, and manager, youth engagement at Plan International, Canada.