Round-up of regional news

Hair-raising amendment

In recent months, before the announcement of elections, New Delhi saw frenzied debate over the Women's Representation Bill – proposals for 50 percent, 33 percent, 25 percent or 2 percent quotas; reservations for backward caste women, other backward caste women, scheduled caste women, and simply 'the other' women; rotating constituencies, revolving constituencies, flying constituencies, or 'fly-by-night' constituencies; and so on.

In all the debates and politicking, the question of hair was completely lost sight of. For women's hair – whether it should be long or short – emerged as the symbol of emancipation and as a criteria for judging who does or does not support this fight for representation.

During the parliamentary session at which this question was raised, it seemed that the then ruling United Front would support any woman with long lustrous tresses. Janata Party icons do not include any woman with 'bob-cuts'; that's reserved for the Congress Party and its offshoots; as these have had in the past rallied behind the short-haired Indira Gandhi.

But, icons apart, an analysis of hair, including the length of hair, is imperative if the issue is to be decided sensibly. As Samson's hair was shortened, his strength depleted. That's the male gender, so the opposite should hold true for women. At least that is what is believed by one school of thought – popularly called the 'bob-cut' Cavillers and which counts. Sharad Yadav, central minister and foe of the other Yadav, Laloo of Bihar, among its main protagonists.

It was he who started the whole "hair thing" as it came to be known. He decried women who went in for the bob-cut: Hardly something that the demure Bharatiya Nari should be seen going out with.

Yadav and other 'self-appointed protectors of India's ancient, hallowed, and male-centric culture, seemed to have quite forgotten that widows in. Banaras shave their hair, and that nuns similarly go with the desi bob-cut. They also seemed to have missed what a recent all-India survey revealed, that most women who kept short coiffures were those in middle age whose hair was thinning.

The ire of the minister, incidentally also with short hair, seemed to have been directed mainly against the relatively young, fashionably cropped, urban, activist, probably English-speaking, and probably Westernised Indian Woman. A woman with short hair is definitely someone who will speak up and talk hack to Minister Yadav.

It is obvious why Yadav does not want women with short hair, on the streets, or in Parliament and state assemblies, where the female ranks would swell under the 81st Constitutional Amendment Bill for increasing women's representation in the hallowed halls. The prospects of a bevy of middle-aged women with thinning hair cutting him short at every sentence must seem horrifying. Better, almost, to drop the women's issue altogether and raise the caste slogan.

– Suchita Vemuri
(Women's Feature Service)

Mumbai still Bombay

Once upon a time there were seven little islands where prehistoric men and Women pottered about in an eco-friendly fashion. As time wore on, they discovered fish and became the islands' original Koli inhabitants. They built a shrine to their goddess Mumba Devi on Chowpatty beach and called their domain Mumbai.

Came the Magadh emperors, the Silhara dynasty, Muslim kings from neighbouring Gujarat, and then the Portuguese in 1534. The Portuguese thought the islands formed a wonderful bay and called the place Bombay (bom = good in Portuguese).

And so Bombay it was as far as the non-natives of Mumbai were concerned, until nearly five- centuries later a sabre-toothed saffron tiger came to power. The tiger using, as it always did, fear as its greatest weapon, decreed that the city revert to its original Koli name, Mumbai. No one dared raise a voice against the rechristening.

Problems arose. What was the city to do with its ubiquitous bright red buses painted over with the logo BEST for -Bombay Electrical Supply and Transport undertaking? Thought the tiger for a moment, and simply changed the name of the utility, which became Brilianimunhat Electrical Supply and Transport. With the new name standing for something like. Greater Mumbai. And what of Bollywood, the world's most prolific film industry? Nollywood' was already cornered by Madras, Which refused to surrender the moniker even after changing its own name to Chennai.

Finally, the central government in New Delhi decided that things were getting out of hand and for the sake of international and commercial purposes the name Bombay should he retained. So the Bombay International Film Festival, which had in the meantime changed from BIFF to MIFF, became BIFF once more and many other such momentous reversals were affected. The tiger was not happy and roared loudly scaring all the people. But the erstwhile Bombayites, now Mum-baikars, remained- characteristically mum.

And so they remain to this day, pale imitations of their former selves, cowering with fear, paying out more and more protection money. For the moment, mum's still the word in Bombay.

"An event of South Asian significance"

Raja Devashish Roy is one of the three chiefs of the indigenous Chakmas of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), and also a practising lawyer in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. He was present when a peace accord was signed on 2 December between Sheikh Hasina Wajed's government and the Parbotyo Chattogram Jana Samhati Samiti (PCJSS) to end 25 years of fighting in the CHT. Calcutta-based political scientist Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury recently talked to Roy about the agreement. Excerpts:

What is the future of the peace accord?

There is no doubt that a new chapter has opened up for the people of CHT. After fighting for their cause for so Many years, they now have to make an assessment of what they have received through this agreement. Prior to 2 December, both the negotiating parties felt that they were being pushed towards peace. The new regime in Dhaka, to its credit, took a fresh initiative to resolve the entire problem in the CHT. There was also the impact of the Gujral Doctrine and the latest policy moves of India on Bangladesh. Dhaka was also feeling the economic pressure of deploying the army in the CHT over an extended period. The agreement must be seen from an optimistic viewpoint, although it is true that it may not necessarily lead us to a permanent solution to the long-standing CHT problem.

Elsewhere in the region many accords between governments and rebel groups have not led to peace. Why should this accord work when they haven't?

If you are referring to the many agreements signed between the Government of India and the rebel groups in Nagaland, Assam and Tripura, those agreements were signed where the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India [which provides for the administration of the Tribal Areas in Assam, Meghalaya and Mizoram] is operative. India has a federal political system where there are constitutional provisions for the devolution of power which we do not have in the Constitution of Bangladesh. In that sense, the CHT accord provides much more than what can be achieved through most of the agreements in India. However, much will of course depend on how the CHT accord gets implemented. In this regard, I feel that there is a need to build a consensus among the major political parties in Bangladesh, including the BNP, Jatiyo Party, and maybe the Jamaat.

Is there a lesson in the CHT accord for the rest of South Asia?

Of course. This shows that there can be understandings even between apparent arch rivals. Nobody wants war. For the sake of peace and prosperity there is a need for such dialogues which can lead to successful agreements. It Was the political will of both the Bangladesh government and the PCJSS which helped prepare the ground for such an accord. At the same time, we in Bangladesh also have to learn from the success and failure of other similar agreements signed earlier in South Asia. It is a two-way learning process.

So do you think the accord in its present shape can be implemented?

Within the unicultural model of the Constitution of Bangladesh, usually there was no official recognition of the indigenous people in the CHT. No special status was granted to them. The present agreement can at a certain point of time create an atmosphere when the devolution of power would be possible within the constitutional framework of. the country, not only for the people in the CHI, but also for the rest of the inhabitants of Bangladesh. On their part, the indigenous people in the CHT have to realise that the required administrative changes should not undermine the sovereignty of Bangladesh. This is necessary for the successful implementation of the accord. Further confidence-building is required on both sides. Nevertheless, I should say that this agreement is an event of South Asian significance.

Dukhini bridges a gap

Twenty five years after 1971, Bangladeshi and Pakistani actors have come together for the first time in a theatre venture. And the subject they have chosen is the trafficking of Bangladeshi women to Pakistan. Directed by Sara Zaker of Nagorik Natya Sampradaya, Dhaka, and written by Shahid Mahmood Nadeem of Ajoka Theatre, Lahore, the bilingual Bangla-Urdu play features actors from both countries. The production is by Ajoka and the Chittagong-based Bangladesh Institute of Theatre Arts.

Dukhini (The Sorrowful One) was premiered in Lahore in mid-October, before going to Islamabad and Karachi. It then travelled to Kathmandu at a regional seminar on violence against women, en route to Dhaka and Chittagong.

Based on real-life incidents, the play is woven around the suicide of a Bangladeshi woman in Pakistan. Her final action of setting herself on fire registers a strong note of protest against the abuse she suffers and gives courage to three other Bangladeshi women – a maidservant, a prostitute and the wife of an old man – who come to visit her grave.

The plight of women who are transported across the breadth of India to be forced into the sex trade in Pakistan has long been under-reported. Generally, the women are either abducted or sold by family members. There are many who also pay hefty sums to be taken to Pakistan, which is regarded as a land of opportunity. More often than not, these employment-seekers, too, find themselves on the streets after being sexually abused by employers.

No amount of publicity, through newspaper reports, feature and documentary films on the situation, has been able to make a dent on this crossborder 'flesh trade, say the producers of Dukhini. It has been difficult for social workers to come to the aid of these women because then they would either face prison sentences as illegal immigrants or, also likely, be booked under what are known as the "Hudood Ordinances" for sex outside marriage.

The 'apprehended' women would also face deportation; back home, the families refuse to take them back for being 'soiled'. It has also been' the experience that the Dhaka government itself prevents repatriation, on the excuse that the women have no papers or passports to prove their identity as Bangladeshi citizens.

Dukhini makes a powerful statement on the issue and humanises it by telling the story of the three Bangladeshi women, and the dead Dukhini, through dance, song and narrative.

Shahid Nadeem, who wrote the play based on research material collected from both countries, said the producers faced not a few problems, such as visa restrictions and withholding of permission for performances. This was due to governments "being constrained by the desire not to tread on political and social toes", he says. The show went on only because of the efforts of some enlightened bureaucrats and politicians in each country.

For the director, Sara Zaker, the opening in Lahore was a homecoming of sorts. She used the opportunity to visit her birthplace Abbotabad, where her father used to serve in the army "Pakistan is a foreign country to me now," she said, 'but it has been very nice coming back. We have got a really warm reception and the audiences have been wonderful."

It can only be hoped that the audience response is not limited to the play alone and that it extends to the message behind it too.

Karate queen

"They showed us videos and told us of horrific incidents of violence against women. I was in tears," said Rani Padamsee, participant in a recent Unicef-organised conference in Kathmandu on violence against women.

The scenes must have been really terrible if Padamsee was moved to tears for, as can he seen by the pose she strikes in the picture, the lady is a fighter. Literally and figuratively.

In 1988, at the age of 20, she became the first woman karate black belt in Bangladesh. Today, Rani Padamsee is proud of her role in popularising the sport among women and girls of her country Besides her two weekly columns in national Bangladeshi papers and frequent lecture-demonstrations for women's NGOs and girls' schools and colleges, she runs the Bengal School of Shotokan Karate that she established five years ago.

Padamsee is a firm believer in the need for women to be active physically and in sports: "You develop – strength, stamina, and most importantly, self awareness and confidence." Traits which are particularly important for women in male-dominated societies like those in South Asia, agreed seminar participants who saw Padamsee in action during a lecture-demonstration at the hotel lawns one evening.

For the karate queen of Bangladesh, a good defence is the best offence. But she still allows for time to cry when injustice is done.


The legal activist

"The judicial process can play an effective role in integrating environmental and ecological considerations in avoiding disasters.To do that, the expansion of the concept of 'person aggrieved' or 'standing' is crucial to keep up the spirit of the emerging human values so strongly realised and advocated by a new generation of activists."

– J Mustafa Kamal, I 994

It is to this new generation of activists that Mohiuddin Farooque belonged. As an advocate at the Bangladesh Supreme Court ad also the Founder and Secretary General of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), all through a legal career so tragically cut short, Farooque fought against a conservative judiciary for the enforcement of the rights of the poor and the underprivileged. In particular, he spoke up loud and clear for those who lived under the threat of 'destructive' developmental projects.

Farooque, who died of lung infection in a Singapore hospital, aged 43, sought the path of public interest litigation. After a decade-long battle, in 1996, he succeeded in earning several landmark judgments in which the Supreme Court recognised a healthy environment as a fundamental right to life. That same year, the Supreme Court expanded the concept of locus standi and gave a broader interpretation to the term "aggrieved person".

The activist lawyer's cases ranged from challenging polluting industries to filing public nuisance cases against those encroaching upon public properties, and those responsible for noise pollution in the name of election campaigns. He even argued on behalf of minor petitioners to prevent Bangladeshi children from being trafficked to the United Arab Emirates as camel jockeys.

A bright student at Dhaka University where he topped in his law degree, Farooque obtained his doctorate in International River Law from the University of Manchester. The author of several books on the subjects he chose to battle, Farooque was a visionary who refused to sit back and complain. He made things happen.

One ambition which Farooque did not live to see was to bring forth the day when the citizens of a country victimised by a development project in another would qualify for redress in the latter's courts. Others who follow Farooque's shining example, in any of the countries of South Asia, may see through what the lawyer from Dhaka himself could not.

– Ruchi Pant

Di, Sush, Ash…

THIS IS the latest brag from Hyderbad's very own rickshaw guys. "Aire maam, shahar ka three three chokaries world sundaris!" ("Town's three chicks have become world beauties!")

Indeed, this Nizams' city in the Indian south has added on a third flattering beauty spot to its rugged Deccan cheek. This time courtesy a former plumber's daughter, Diana Hayden, the new Miss World show-off. Diana, like former. Miss Universe Sushmita Sen and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, is another rare breed from the Hyderabad Stable.

While dwelling on the Hyderabadi hat trick, note also that both Di and Sush were born in the same polluted lowgrade industrial Sanathnagar locality (talk of lotuses from the muck). Further, Di and Ash studied in the same St Ann's School in Secunderabad, the twin city across the Hussain Sagar.

But these beautiful connections should not come as a surprise, for Hyderabad is heir to the aesthetic legacy of the Nizams. One story goes like this: a maid while dusting the palace broke a chandelier just as the Nizam wafted by. Fearing the worst, the maid cowered, but was amazed when the king emperor ordered her to break another. "I like the sound," the Nizam gushed.

So what next? A fourth beauty needed to lean on the one remaining empty pillar of the city's landmark Char Minar.

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