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Mainstream, VOL LX No 17, New Delhi, April 16, 2022

Review: Women’s Labor in Bangladesh

Friday 15 April 2022


Reviewed by Samita Sen

An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal.

by Poulomi Saha

New York: Columbia University Press
Gender and Culture Series
2019 | Illustrations. 344 pp. $65.00 (cloth)
ISBN 978-0-231-19208-8.

The book under review, An Empire of Touch by Poulomi Saha, is organized around three parts. The first part is thematic, what Saha terms a "fabric genealogy," a running thread of textiles, starting with the now-extinct dhakai muslin and moving onto the political role of khadi, the ubiquitous kantha, and ready-made garments, whose production is now the mainstay of the Bangladesh economy. The second part, comprising labor, body, and touch, underpins the first part. This section is animated by the analytic grid of female labor, seen in bodily terms, intimate and tactile, thus providing the idiom of "touch" (in the title), but, also, in terms of the invisibility of women’s bodies, which are personalized and domesticated. The chief argument of the book is that Bangladesh has been "made" by women’s labor, which, marked by gender, class, and empire, is political despite or perhaps because it has not usually fallen under that sign. The third part—contingency, cathexis, and desh—provides the conceptual framework.

Let us begin with desh. My use of the term "Bangladesh" in the previous paragraph is a shorthand at odds with the book. Saha expends considerable effort to define the space of her exploration, a changing and dynamic entity, partitioned, rejoined, re-partitioned twice further to then emerge into uncertain nationhood. It was dubbed an "international basket case" at the critical juncture of its creation, to then defy all expectations by becoming an exemplar of the developmental state, having made a place for itself among the middle-income countries and outstripping its much larger and more powerful neighbor, India, in most indices of welfare and human development. The appellation of this space has changed many times through the trajectory of this book, which focuses on three political moments: the first partition of Bengal in 1905, militant nationalist movements of the 1930s, and the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. Of these, Saha chooses to use the name East Bengal to flag the incompleteness of its various transitions—also, to delineate East Bengal’s relationship with the Indian state of West Bengal (and also with West Pakistan when it was a wing of Pakistan, 1947-71) in which this land is repeatedly cast as feminine (and even maternal), as a source only of natural resources and raw material. The maternal image is further extended and amplified into the nation-as-mother in the period of the anticolonial movement in the emotive pen of poets, especially Rabindranath Tagore, who sang it into national becoming. Appositely, it is the song that depicts a golden mother Bangla (Bengal), an object of intimate affect, that is chosen for its anthem by the new state of Bangladesh. The question of gender is thus fundamentally constitutive of the very site itself as much as the political labor of the "fabrication" of its polity.

The author states that the book is about unruly feminine subjects: virgins, spinsters, childless widows, unwed mothers, factory workers. The figures who populate the book range from middle-class bhadramahila involved in political movements to militant nationalists but also spinsters at the Gandhian charka to working-class women, who earn their living manufacturing yarn or cloth or garments. It is about women who were "rehabilitated" by labor, mostly through myriad work with textiles. It is also about two men. That Tagore looms large in this book on East Bengal is perhaps not very surprising. The other figure is that of Mahatma Gandhi; his political deployment of khadi is a recurrent motif in the text. One startling, if somewhat passing, connection between the two men wrought in the book is their very different engagements with their own bodies, gender, and tropes of self-feminization.

If the themes of each are summarized baldly, the connections between the chapters are difficult to discern. The book begins with the suicide of Pritilata Waddedar (1932), a school teacher and a revolutionary, a member of the Indian Republican Army (a branch of Jugantar), during a raid on the Pahartali Railway Institute in Chittagong. Next, we have a dyad. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on Tagore. The second chapter is on the debate over swadeshi and khadi between Tagore and Gandhi (approximately 1925-30). These debates were not only about the means and modes of protest but also critically about the nature and meaning of "nation" and its postcolonial possibilities. The third chapter focuses on a rereading of Tagore’s famous novel, Ghare Baire (Home and the World) (1916), now repeatedly reinterpreted, alongside its film version by Satyajit Ray (1984). A second dyad addresses directly women’s labor in the making of Bangladesh. The fourth chapter addresses the birangana, the women raped during the Bangladesh liberation war, and their entanglements with history and memory of war and conflict. As in some other studies, Saha connects these to state and nongovernmental schemes for rehabilitation, the attempts at social and familial integration, demographic policy, and reproductive politics. The last chapter is a trenchant critique of the tropes of "empowerment" so obstinately attached to women’s labor in Bangladesh. First, of course, we have the Grameen Bank and the internationally acclaimed success of Muhammad Yunus’s (the third Nobel Laureate from Bengal featuring in Saha’s story, as she notes in chapter 5) micro-finance schemes, which have proven his thesis that even when they are poor, women’s immobility and imbrication in family and community make them the most reliable debtors. And then the author discusses the runaway success of the ready-made garment industry based on cheap and flexible female labor. Despite the spectacular industrial accidents in recent years, widely discussed poor conditions of work, and generally bad press, women garment workers, Saha argues, perceive positive opportunities within their work. This should not be confused with "freedom" in the liberal or commercial sense; one should say, rather, that despite being embedded in the social structures of obligation, debt, and kinship, women are able to access new imaginations of agency.

What binds these three disparate themes (organized in three parts) in the book? The answer lies greatly in the term "contingency" offered by the author as a conceptual framing. To draw on the author’s own metaphor, like the gossamer filament drenched in morning dew with which the translucent dhakai muslin was woven, delicate threads only sometimes made visible hold this book together: labor and body, touch, text, and textile. As a result, this is not a book that lends itself easily to summary. It is packed with unusual trajectories, unexpected connections, and novel insights. I describe briefly three such passages of the book below, hoping to lure readers into its covers.

The questions of the body, gender, and sexuality in relation to Gandhi are by no means new. Saha connects this literature with her central theme of khadi and female labor. Gandhi, she argues, "embodied not just the nationalist cause but the very terms of its political strategy." His spectacular suffering and self-abnegation conjured the suffering nation. Gandhi’s body and his hand on the wheel of the charka—framed by touch—was itself the national project. Gandhi responded to hypermasculine coloniality with self-feminization, drawing both on women’s household labor (spinning) and modes of protest (passive resistance, including hunger strike). Thereby, he also sought to break down the unhelpful dualism of masculine rationality and feminine affect, making way for a "new political subject whose material labour would be as useful to the cause of independence as her affective labour" (p. 107).

In chapter 3, Saha brings Tagore’s Home and the World into conversation with Sigmund Freud. This helpful juxtaposition enables a rather new reading of the much-discussed and debated differences in the ending of the novel and the film. Despite his deep disillusionment with the swadeshi movement as it unfolded in 1905-6 and his despair over the futility of the jingoistic nationalism that led to the First World War, Tagore retained enough faith in the liberal possibilities of Nikhil’s anticolonialism to leave the novel’s ending open. We are to choose, however, between Nikhil’s homosociality in the world (his relationship with Sandip) and reproductive heteronormativity in the home (his relationship with Bimala): "we cannot have both nation and wife, goddess and mother" (p. 166). Bimala’s redemption lay in reconciliation, possible only if Nikhil lived. In the film, Ray kills Nikhil and makes Bimala a childless widow, foreclosing any possibility of reconciliation and redemption. This is, Saha argues, hardly surprising since Ray made the film seventy years later, after independence and two partitions with all of Nikhil’s possibilities exhausted in epic scales of violence.

Section 6 in chapter 4 is titled "Scraps of Sari." It is entirely fitting that a book so insistently tugging at cotton and silk yarns should include a discussion on the sari. The section begins with harrowing stories of Maleka Khan’s rescue of women incarcerated and subjected to repeated rape. Khan wrapped these women in pieces of her own old cotton saris. The elegy to the tanter sari (handloom sari) that follows will speak on multiple levels to its users in the steamy environment of East Bengal. The tanter sari is "a prized material signifier of Bengal that is beloved as much for its beauty as its ubiquity"; its touch is feminine, signifying the labor of women, in its making and maintenance, a transitional fabric between the luxurious muslin and the coarse khadi (p. 195). This discussion, touching also on the teep (more familiar perhaps in its Hindi appellation, "bindi," a dot on the forehead), draws another set of startling connections. The first is perhaps not so unknown that it was considered un-Islamic and along with the sari was sought to be eradicated by the culture police of West Pakistan. More unexpectedly, we are connected to the discussion on fingerprints in chapter 1. Teep is the common term in Bangla for both, the adornment on women’s forehead and the fingerprint. The connection is clear when pointed out: earlier the teep on the forehead was drawn with the fingertip. Later, technological developments, the introduction of liquids, and stick-ons disconnected the two.

One could go on. This book will be a delight to those who find joy in gossamer connections—words in common, tropes at play, ideas that can be read together, historical coincidence, and, above all, contingency. It is a must-read for students of Bengal, historical and contemporary. Given the diversity of themes, the book will appeal to a wide range of scholars, of political movements, literature and language, social and economic history, colonialism and imperialism, labor and artisanal production, and development and gender studies. To those curious about methodology, this highly original experiment may provide material for stretching existing boundaries. Bringing critical theory to bear upon history is no longer new; this book poses historical questions to some shibboleths of postcolonial theory. It demonstrates the enormous potential of such analytic categories as gender and labor to forge new, more jagged, narratives and to explore fresh fields of research.

[This work from H-Net Reviews reproduced here under a Creative Commons license]

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