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‘Women’s writing is rarely read before it is rejected’

One fine morning, after two years of rigorous training and work in film-making in India, Shaheen Akhtar packed her bags and decided to return to her own idyllic niche: writing. ‘I had to come to terms with many experiences in my life and discover myself: writing in many ways offered me a chance to do just that,’ says Shaheen.

After her return, in 1997 when she started writing her first novel Palabar Path Nai, a story that explored the life of two single women in Dhaka, it was a medium through which she could express herself and also the painful experiences and the struggles of women she saw around her.

Much of this novel portrayed her life and the years of living alone in Dhaka while studying at Dhaka University. ‘I could relate myself to that situation more strongly perhaps,’ she tells me as we sit in the balcony of the Dhaka based NGO, Ain-O-Salish-Kendra’s office in Kakrail. Shaheen is editor of the Media and Communication Unit at ASK. ‘Having grown up in a village and shifting to Dhaka and living alone, was a challenge and also an escape. In some ways, experiencing the difficulties and odds, of living as a single woman everyday in the city, helped me grow as an individual and understand women like me better,’ she says ruefully.

The writer of a number of short stories like Boner Shange Amarloke and Poneroti Golpo and other publications like Narir Ekattor o Juddho Poroborti Kottho Kahini, Taalash, Abaro Prem Ashche, she admits that her stories are mostly centred around women. ‘And why not? There are a handful of writers who delve into the untold tales of struggles and challenges that women face every day of their lives. Moreover, being a woman allows you to be able to express the emotions of another woman more precisely,’ she says.

In fact, in her Prothom Alo Literary prize winning novel Talaash last year, she has done exactly that. Set against the backdrop of 1971 war of liberation, the novel captures the untold tales of women during the war. ‘It was a moving experience,’ she says softly. ‘Had it not been the research on the War of Liberation initiated by Ain O- Salish Kendra, the story would not have been possible. My research continued for about four or five years and it was during that time that I interviewed women who were raped during the war and also study the related books, documents and publications.’

Akhtar reveals the tale of struggle through the central character Marium. ‘The War went on only for nine months but it was the people of that liberated nation who denied later these women a place in society. Talash narrates the story of 30 years of that post-War abuse.’

Talash is a successful book perhaps because it in many ways awakened sleeping consciences of the people, says Akhtar. ‘But if such a situation should arise again, there’s no guarantee that they’re not going to behave the same way. In fact, it’s more than probable that they will.

‘Shaheen Akhtar’s mesmerising and moving novel is set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh war of liberation and in her skilful hands, the war becomes a way to explore the violence done to women, and their courage, their tenderness, their heartbreak and betrayal and their search for love. Akhtar’s is one of the younger voices to explore this hitherto hidden dimension of the history of Bangladesh. Originally published in Bengali, Talaash was awarded the Prothom Alo Literary Prize in 2004’—reads the review of

‘Zubaan and Young Zubaan Rights Catalogue 1006-2007’, an independent non-profit publishing house in India.

‘The novel attempts to seek, if not social justice, then a certain understanding that moves beyond tolerance or acceptance of the literally Heroic Women of Bangladesh—the women who were raped during the Liberation War in 1971,’ explains Akhtar. ‘In a way although both my novels dealt with women, the situation was completely different- in Palabar Path Nai, the women chose to live the single life and hence struggle but in Talash, there was no question of choice, rather the helplessness of women.’

‘I think Akhtar has strong potential,’ says celebrated writer Rabeya Khatun. ‘In fact, she is one of the most promising writers of her generation.’

In many ways, Akhtar’s ability to portray the grey realities of women’s lives, comes from her own share of experiences, she admits. Born in 1962, in a conventional middle class family, residing in Chandini thana in Comilla, Akhtar had to struggle continuously to be able to continue her education. ‘It was a constant pressure to do well in studies or else be married off,’ she says ruefully. ‘It was often very difficult to cope with the pressure and although I loved writing, it was not an option I could take.’ At 19, Akhtar stopped writing her short- stories and ‘bits and pieces of writing’ and concentrated on studies. ‘Coming to Dhaka was escaping from that world where I was continuously prodded to get married. Since I had very good results, my father finally agreed to send me to Dhaka University where I studied Economics.’

Again, studying Economics, she tells me, was a choice made because her family felt she it would be ticket to a decent job. ‘Towards the end, I lost interest in that subject and it was then that I became involved in film-making. In fact, my first job was to make documentary films and I had a chance to move in the direction of film-making. I had just finished my degree and had a job, the issue of marriage came up all over again and hence started the battle against my family,’ she says.

‘It was through film-making that I went to India, and when I returned to Bangladesh, my entry into literature began as a way to reach an understanding with myself, after having experienced crisis and loss’. Her eyes speak of experience and she seems to exude more confidence specifically when she speaks of writing and being a woman writer.

‘Women’s writing is rarely read before it is rejected. It’s more like a norm that women are ought to write badly. My theme of writing i.e. independent women and their struggles is something different and not an acceptable norm. That is probably one of the reasons for being labelled as a “feminist”,’ she laughs.

Married to a member of the Film Forum, Akhtar feels she can talk about similar topics with her husband. ‘Probably at this age, it is more important to have someone like that.’

She wants to continue writing on women, she says. ‘More importantly, I want to highlight the spirit and the strength of women rather than just saying that they are always worse off. Women, all around, have their own means of expression, even in a remote area of Netrokona we have examples of women who come together and sing their own redemption songs when the rest of the world sleeps.’

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