Monday, January 15, 2018

An Academic Insight

By Raakhee Suryaprakash

Prof. Amena Mohsin graduated from Dhaka University’s International Relations department and got her MA and PhD from the University of Hawaii and Cambridge University respectively. The recipient of several national and international fellowships (East-West Center Graduate Fellowship, CIDA International Fellowship, Commonwealth Staff Fellowship, SSRC Fellowship and Freedom Foundation Fellowship), she writes on Human Rights, State, Democracy, Civil-Military relations and human security. She is the author of The Politics of Nationalism: The Case of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh (University Press Limited, 1997), The Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: On The Difficult Road To Peace (Lynn Rienner Publishers, 2002), Ethnic Minorities of Bangladesh: Some Reflections the Saontals and Rakhaines (Programme for Research on Poverty Alleviation, 2002), and co-editor of Women and Militancy: South Asian Complexities (with Imtiaz Ahmed; University Press Limited, 2011), and Conflict and Partition, CHT, Bangladesh (with Delwar Hossain; SAGE, 2015).

I met Dr. Amena Mohsin - Professor, Department of International Relations, Dhaka University - at the International Conference on “Changing Dynamics in SAARC: Challenges and Opportunities in the Region” at N.E.S Ratnam College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Mumbai where she was a distinguished guest and chair of the second day’s session (December 9, 2017) on “Millennium Development Goals/Poverty Alleviation/Health/Education/Gender Equality/Sexual Minorities.”
Dr. Mohsin made a powerful presentation on “Gender and Violent Extremism: A regional perspective” with insights from her work in Bangladesh, incorporating primary and secondary sources.  It was brought out that women were becoming visible in violent extremism. It was also mentioned that women make up approximately 40% of Maoist insurgents. In addition to highlighting the correlation between violence against women (VAW) and recruitment into violent extremism Dr. Amena Mohsin called for the re-examination of narratives that assume that women will always choose peace!
The presentation explained that women join violent extremism
  • to change the status quo;
  • to project their agency;
  • as a result of family/husband pressure;
  • as an extension of their role as family care-givers where they become suicide bombers to ensure that their family is looked after.

Yet in spite of joining these extremist institutions to change the status quo they get relegated to the kitchen or in worse cases aren’t re-integrated to society, as observed in the cases of the women combatants of the Chittagong Hill Tribe.
Following the presentation Dr. Mohsin spoke about her interest in Gender and Women studies and her experiences:

What triggered your interest in Women and Gender Studies?
AM: I’ve been working on gender for a long time. My interest in gender started because, as a child when I watched movies, songs, and TV serials, I didn’t like how women behaved. Always women were pleading with men. I didn’t realize about media representation and stereotyping but resented the weak portrayal. Now we have so many labels but this is how the issue found root in my young mind without conditioning. After education, it has gotten clearer how one may categorize the issues, but the problems persist. We were the first ones [she and two colleagues at Dhaka University (DU)] to push for a course on Gender and International Relations in DU’s Department of International Relations in spite of tough pushback. We were the first to offer a course on Gender in the late 1990s. I was also a founding member of the Department of Women and Gender Studies. While studying IR we debated on High politics and Low Politics and the prevalence of violence against women.
1971 was a major shaping factor even though I was a child and not aware. Later post my PhD when I was working on Minority Rights and interviewed the women survivors of ’71 through the Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), a legal aid and human rights organization, we brought out the first documented research on them.
Dr Mohsin’s work on her thesis included a critique of nationalism focused on the Chittagong Hill Tribes and while interviewing the Hill Women Federation how women combatants fight and what happens to them she made some startling discoveries that she shared.

Can you share your observations following your interactions with women combatants of the Chittagong Hill Tribes?
AM: At that time, the mid-1990s, women’s role was very different and the impact on women was very different – women become more authoritarian than men. At the time of the thesis these women were combatants but later I interacted with them while conducting a peace audit. While peace prevailed – in the sense that there was no armed conflicts, tensions were still high.

During the course of the peace audit, Dr Mohsin decided to talk to the women who were active in guerrilla warfare. In the course of approaching a former woman combatant, while her husband, also a former combatant, was willing to talk the woman was unwilling. The husband asked her to return alone at 10pm in order to talk to the former woman fighter. A risky request! Dr. Mohsin was a Bengali in the territory of the hill tribes. It was not prudent to go alone. Her local guide insisted upon waiting in the street corner.

AM: The woman guerrilla was behaving soft and docile and not talking directly in Bangla, even though she could. But coming from the region I could follow the dialect. It became apparent that the husband was telling the former woman fighter what to say. So a woman who was so active during the war finds herself relegated to the kitchen, and under the husband’s domination after the war.
They weren’t accepted by society, like in the case of the survivors of 1971, while the hill communities reintegrated then the majority were treated as pariahs. In the case of the women who took up arms were looked upon as having lost their womanhood by society – the men wanted soft, shy “sharmili” and gentle woman as wives they didn’t want women who fought for freedom as wives.
A man who fought side by side with women actually told her, I don’t want a man beside me at home. A woman who took up arms is a man and lost her womanhood.

Does it help women academics and working women having women in position of political power in Bangladesh?
AM: The visibility of women political leaders is important. Bangladesh has been exceptional in accepting women leaders despite being a Muslim majority country. The visibility and prevalence of women political leaders help to break through the notion that women are naturally meant for private spheres. But just numbers does not translate to true women’s empowerment. And women in mainstream politics have to deal with rightist forces and compromise so decisions taken hinder women’s empowerment. Language needs to be reframed to ensure women’s empowerment in Bangladesh and beyond.

Could you elaborate on the connection between VAW and women’s participation in violent extremism as touched upon in your presentation at this conference?
AM:  Impunity is rampant and VAW is a pandemic especially throughout South Asia. Judgements don’t come or come too late and society accepts VAW as normal. Religion and religious interpretation allows it (According to her driver, beating one’s wife is halal!). This normalization of violence against women is a kind of militarization of society. Beyond weaponization and build-up of stockpiles ideas and ideology also contributes to militarization.
As emphasized repeatedly in the paper, violent extremism is about singularity of thought. The ideology has become militarized. When a society comes to accept violence as normal then there is an increase in the number of people who take to violent extremism. It’s a progression. The correlation between the normalization of VAW and the acceptance of indoctrination of violent extremist ideology, especially among youth, is in the same trajectory. When the society becomes conservative and accepts violence as a normal feature and something that is sanctioned by religion then it functions as a facilitator and conduit for violent extremism.

So, the million dollar question. How can we empower women?
AM: Simply put you can’t. Women need to empower themselves. As I tell my students we have created new women but are yet to create new men. I think it is essential to educate and condition out the toxic masculinity. Unless men change there is little a woman can do about it, at the end of the day we are all part of society.

Patriarchy triumph’s, even post revolution and how to change the narrative.
AM: Changing the mind-set and reframing language, involves making it clear that war is not about taking up arms. Women writers, mothers, teachers undervalue the power of language. Why “re-productive” why not productive. “Role of supporters.” This is passive language but the action is active and positive.

What was one of the most powerful, experiences of your academic life?
AM: As mentioned before through ASK I interviewed survivors of Seventy-one. I then participated in an event organized by ASR in Lahore where the women of Pakistan apologizing to the women of Bangladesh for the atrocities of ‘71. The state of Pakistan is yet to apologize for 1971 but the women of Pakistan have it enabled a move towards reconciliation.


As I participated in the event, I recalled all the testimonies of the survivors and broke down. In that moment I was unable to handle the memories of the testimonies. I said at the event, it does not matter whether you apologize today or not but for your own sake and for the sake of your conscience and posterity you need to apologize to the women of ’71. Otherwise you will be known as a nation of rapists and you are not. This ensured a clear distinction between the state and the people and at least managed a reconciliation between the people