Reclaiming life in times of deathby Rahnuma Ahmed
THERE are more nuggets of wisdom in Begum Rokeya's phrase and I want to turn to those now.
আমাদের অবস্থা আমরা চিন্তা না করিলে আর কেহ আমাদের জন্য ভাবিবে না।
When Begum Rokeya says we need to think for ‘ourselves’, who is the us? Who defines the us? I had said earlier that powerful forces exist in the world who claim to speak for freedom and democracy, but actually this is doublespeak, these words serve to cloak colonial occupation, to mask the looting of other people’s land and resources, to hide the wreaking of havoc, death and destruction. In capitalist democracies garnering public support for wars — which means an inflated defence budget which affects people’s standards of living as it diverts funds from public spending, which means a loss of lives, as soldiers are also husbands and fathers and sons (women too) — is a crucial factor which politicians need to calculate to retain their electoral popularity.
Now if we were to look at Israel, the Palestinians are considered to be the natural enemies of the Israelis. But not all Israelis blindly believe what the government and its allies, led by the United States, who provides Israel $8.2 million each day in military aid (these are 2011 figures, this has increased in 2012), would have the people believe and behave accordingly. One of the most courageous Israeli dissenters is Dr Nurit Peled-Elhanan, the mother of Smadar Elhanan, whose 13 year-old daughter was killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem in September 1997, who is a professor of language and education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She was invited to address the European Parliament on the occasion of International Women’s Day in 2005, and much to the anger of her government I’m sure, first of all, asked the parliament why it hadn’t invited a Palestinian woman to speak instead of her, since they ‘suffer [the] most’ from Israeli violence. She then went on to dedicate her speech to Miriam R’aban and her husband Kamal, from Gaza, whose five small children had been killed by Israeli soldiers while picking strawberries in the family’s strawberry field. Declaring her solidarity with Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan women, she said Israeli, American, Italian and British mothers have been ‘violently blinded and brainwashed to such a degree that they cannot realize their only sisters, their only allies in the world are Muslim Palestinian, Iraqi or Afghani mothers.’ Western mothers are taught to believe that while their uterus is a national asset, the Muslim uterus is an international threat, that little girls with head scarves threaten the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, that Muslims are ‘vile, primitive and blood-thirsty’, that they are also ‘non-democratic, chauvinistic and mass producers of future terrorists.’ These are fake, they are false, they are meant to ‘enrich the rich and to empower the powerful.’ The problem is not little Muslim girls wearing headscarves, but the big imperialistic foot of the enlightened western world. The problem is Sharon, Bush and Blair and their clan of blood-thirsty, oil-thirsty and land-thirsty generals.
In other words, to get back to Begum Rokeya, the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’, which lead us to view particular groups of people as being our natural friends and others as our diehard enemies, can often be cunningly crafted by the powerful to manufacture enmities which are then kept alive through propaganda and covert means. Being able to think these through critically, as Dr Nurit Peled-Elhanan does, is a matter of life and death.
I would now like to show a small section of a video which shows young women artists protesting against the control of all West Bank borders by Israeli security forces, which means that Palestinians are required to present an identification card or passport when they enter or leave the territory.
There is another hidden nugget in Begum Rokeya’s words.
ভাবিলেও তাহাতে আমাদের ষোল আনা উপকার হইবে না।
‘Even if they did, it would not be of much use.’
One of the best examples of others thinking for us is the foreign-funded, NGO-ised development paradigm. There is an ‘aura of self-evidence’ about the word development, says Gerald Rist in his study, The History of Development. From Western Origins to Global Faith (1996, 2008). Development is a concept which is supposed to command ‘universal acceptance’, thereby making us forget that it is specific to ‘a particular history and culture.’ Having an aura of self-evidence means that we forget to question the basic premise of development, namely: ‘economic growth is the prescribed means to universal improvement.’ We forget to question despite the impending climate change catastrophe. We forget to question despite the fact that development aggravates those very inequalities which it wants to reduce. For instance, the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Program, later replaced by the Poverty Reduction Program, created a paradox for many third world governments. The withdrawal of subsidies for health, education and food items deepened and feminised poverty, badly affecting women-headed households; research shows that in many African and Asian countries, daughters are being married off at an earlier age. However, despite this, international organisations insist that governments should take measures to redress the gender imbalance in education. But how can poor households, for whom subsidies are life-savers, afford to send their little daughters to school, once these are withdrawn? It can only mean one thing — that the World Bank and its development partners are colluding in denying the inequalities which are aggravated by development programmes.
The minority who run the system, says Rist, profit from it, and they have no wish to challenge it. It is this minority who insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that ‘wealth can be generalized to everyone on earth.’ Present injustices are presented as being a temporary state of affairs, which will disappear after more development occurs. Development practices, says Rist, basically boils down to the ‘global extension of the market.’ It turns everything in the world into ‘commodities’.
Since I have mentioned the World Bank, I want to add a small note here — I do not wish to enter into the present controversy over the Padma Bridge which is rocking the nation. The World Bank’s allegations of a ‘corruption conspiracy’ have been countered by party higher-ups; the World Bank is corrupt, they say. We know it is, but this is not a principled stand of the government but an attempt to deflect public attention away from the issue of government corruption. Neither the present government, nor the ruling class in general, have the intellectual capacity or the political will to fundamentally rethink the national development paradigm, despite the fact that concrete instances exist in these times, which are worth thinking about in all seriousness. I speak of Latin American countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador who are said to be working out a ‘twenty first century socialism’. Those who keep a close watch on the events as they unfold in these Latin American nations inform us of the differences from twentieth-century socialism: a tight-knit vanguard party in the Leninist tradition is absent here; orthodox Marxism’s cult of the proletariat is rejected, instead, marginalised and semi-marginalised sectors of the population are incorporated in decision-making and in the cultural life of the nation; social movements are incorporated in the political life of the nation; frequent referendums, primaries and elections are held which means the government enjoys popular support for programmes such as these, lessening the dependence on multinationals by signing contracts with state oil companies, reasserting control over the oil industries (Venezuela); pressuring foreign companies to sell oil and gas to the state-owned company (Bolivia), developing pride in national identity and sovereignty. Here I would like to mention Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, whose campaign promise had been to close down the US military base in Manta after the 10-year lease was over. And he did. When asked by American journalists later, Correa said he was willing to extend the agreement if the US would agree to housing an Ecuadorian military base in New York!
Now, my point is that thinking for ourselves allows us to see through the façade that powerful forces continuously present before us to produce, maintain, and perpetuate their systems of domination. Thinking for ourselves leads us to figure out that academic freedom is being grievously assaulted although government policies claim that the objective of the NEP is to create a democratic society. Thinking for ourselves enables us to see through the claims made in the name of development, to figure out that the development enterprise actually seeks to extend the market the world over.
Concluding part tomorrow
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