The Independence of India: What Kind of Independence?
With this issue I want to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence of August 15, 1997. I wish that all the nations of the world could commemorate their independence from all kinds of domination.
Starvation is also a form of domination, and social and economic conditions particularly affect women and children, even though the two forms are not necessarily interrelated. According to a report by the US Controller General, twenty percent of all food grown and manufactured in the United States is discarded. "And yet in Massachusetts, one in every four children under the age of twelve is hungry or at risk of being hungry every day." (from Zoe A. Rossing "Food For Free", in Spare Change, August 16-31, 1997)
The paper published in this issue is entitled The Perils of Free Speech, by Dr. Taslima Nasrin. In 1995 Nasrin won the Prize for Freedom of Thought. She is a symbol of freedom for thousands of people all over the world. She is an international symbol of freedom — that is, freedom from domination in a patriarchal society poisoned by religious fundamentalism. Under a threat death from Muslim fundamentalists, Naslima went into voluntary exile in Europe. Nasrin has been accused of having offended the religious sentiments of Muslims. Militant groups in Bangladesh had offered a USD 1,250 reward for her death.
Nasrin gave the speech on Friday April 26 1996 at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). The event was organized by one of our editors, Dr. Carolyne Wright. In 1991-92 Wright was a Fellow of the Institute; a well-known translator of Bangladeshi women poets and writers, she is the author of four books of her own poetry and two translations from Bengali, The Game in Reverse: Poems by Taslima Nasrin (with the collaboration of Taslima Nasrin, Farida Sarkar, Mohammad Nurul Huda, and Subharanjan Dasgupta, New York: George Braziller, 1995)1 and Another Spring, Darkness: Selected Poems of Anuradha Mahapatra (Corvallis, Oregon: Calyx Books, 1996). The poems which Taslima read after her lecture have been recorded, transcribed from the tape and compared (with the permission of the translator) with Wright's book The Game in Reverse.
I want to thank Dr. Wright for informing me about the event and for having invited me to join her and Taslima Nasrin, who was her guest at that time, for dinner. Thanks to this dinner, I had the chance to meet Nasrin and to ask her questions about her life and poetry which I would not otherwise have had the opportunity to do.
I recorded Nasrin's speech and, with her permission, transcribed it with the help of the student Wang Wong, also known as Odi. He is working on a BA at Berklee College of Music, and is also a poet. As far as I know, since Nasrin is not a native speaker of English, the speech I am transcribing had been revised by Carolyne Wright before Nasrin read it. Here I have preserved the original gaps, hesitations, repetitions, and mistakes of the talk.
One last remark. In Bangladesh the literacy rate for women remains frozen at 25%. This is why the books of this well-born, well-educated, rebellious woman are really hard to find in that country, even though there is a group of excellent women poets. They belong to a social and cultural elite.
A Non-conventional Woman: Two Evenings with Taslima Nasrin. A Report, which is published after Nasrin's lecture, is a report of two evenings I spent with Taslima Nasrin in April 1996 in Cambridge (Mass., USA). Especially during the first, informal meeting and dinner, I approached Nasrin as a woman and a friend, trying to understand her, and to delve into her public, dramatic persona as a controversial and criticized writer and polemist, and as a symbol of freedom for thousands of women writers in the world.
During our talk, Taslima referred to the Grameen Bank. Grameen means "rural" or "village" in Bengali. The bank has been established by Dr. Muhammad Yunus to give micro-loans to poor people, mainly women, mainly in Third World countries. Over 10 million women, and some men, have benefitted from Yunus' idea. He studied Economics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, then taught at Middle Tennessee State. In 1971 he returned to his homeland, Bangladesh, to teach. He thought he could help his country to develop. After realizing that poverty was all around him, right outside the university campus, in villages, in towns, he decided to lend money to poor women. He had met a woman who made bamboo stools, earning only two pennies a day. He found that the woman had borrowed money to start her business and had agreed to sell the goods she made to the lender at the price he fixed. She had borrowed twenty-five cents to do slave labor, and to be paid two cents. Yunus and his students found several people in similar situations in neighboring villages. He took out personal loans to lend small amounts to the poor to set them up in their own businesses. Yunus thought that the banking system was managed to keep the poor people out, and "nobody is better at managing money than poor people. They learn how to stretch every penny and make do". He also realized that poor people were good credit risks. In 1983, after constant attempts, he persuaded the government of Bangladesh to let him open a bank.
Grameen began by requiring borrowers to form small groups of five people and meet weekly to discuss each other's business and to give prior approval to the loans proposals. If one of the group falls behind on payments, no other group member can borrow until the allotment is paid. This was established by Yunus for group members to support and protect each other. They elect a president and a treasurer. Yunus says that for many members, this was the first experience with democracy. Grameen now works in 36,000 villages in Bangladesh, lends US $ 1 million each day, and employs 12,000 people. Currently, 94% of the borrowers are women.
The very interesting point is the management of micro-loans and earnings by borrowers. According to Grameen statistics, women are more likely to spend for their families, while men tend to spend their earnings on luxury items. In order to oblige borrowers to invest money to improve their own lives and those of their families, in 1984 the Grameen Bank made a list of 16 Decisions. Each borrower is expected to commit herself/himself to it. The "16 Decisions" list was created in 1984 in Bangladesh, at a national workshop of a hundred chiefs of women's centers. Grameen members all over the world are expected to memorize and implement similar decisions, and in each country members have adapted these rules to suit their local cultures. The first Decisions are made to commit people to the well-being of themselves and their families, and they are the primary rules of health and self-respect for people and the environment where they live (first of all, their houses).
The Decisions number seven and number eight read respectively:
- We shall educate our children and ensure that we can earn to pay for their education.
- We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, nor shall we allow anyone else to do so.
The decision number eleven reads:
- We shall not take any dowry at our son's weddings, nor shall we give any dowry at our daughter's weddings. We shall keep our center free from the curse of dowry.
- We shall not practice child marriage.
This Decision no. 11 is perhaps the best way to attack the custom of dowry and dowry deaths, at least in poor families, and the evil of child marriages. From the practical point of view, credit restrictions are much more effective than any international campaign, conference, workshop, and publication, even though information can help to awaken public opinion.
The rule also points to the more unconfortable side of dowry: dowry is given because it is demanded. The practice is simply an economic transaction. There is an offer because there is a demand. I wonder how many scandalized Indians - everybody whom I have asked about dowry seemed to be scandalized by this - have really refused to ask for dowry when their beloved sons and their own interests were involved. I also wonder how many Westerners would do it. I only
thank God that in Europe, where I live now, even though we have many kinds of violence against women, we do not have, and never had, these kinds of dowry demands which can lead to the extreme consequence of killing a bride.2 I thank God that not even the state can arrogate the right to kill people - with the death penalty.
- See my review in JSAWS, vol. 2, no. 2, May 15, 1996. ↩
- I thank Dr. L. Magnocavallo who pointed out to me the article on the Grameen Bank ("A Recipe for Prosperity", Boston Sunday Globe, Aug. 17, 1997, Parade Magazine) from which I have freely taken my information. I also thank one of our readers who, in April or May, 1996, mentioned the Grameen system to me, and offered to write a paper on micro-loans and Third-World women for our journal - which I am anxiously waiting for! ↩