Bangladeshi Feminism and Shabnam Nadiya’s ‘Teacher Shortage’ in Lifelines

The normative definition of feminism is the endorsement of women’s rights, particularly that of achieving equality to men. This could be political, social, economic or even cultural for that matter. Feminism and Bangladesh. Two words that differ from the emergence of Britain’s New Woman during the Fin-de-siècle, the Western World’s First-Wave women’s suffrage movement and the Second-Wave Feminism of the mid-twentieth century. In fact, Bangladeshi Feminism encompasses a space of its own, wherein each woman, young and aged, patrician and plebeian, has their own definition of freedom, equality, and thus power. The 2012 anthology of short stories, Lifelines, edited by writer Farah Ghuznavi, captures the fictional lives of the struggling, crying, powerless, deserted women alongside the candid, confident and rebellious ones.

Shabnam Nadia’s ‘Teacher Shortage’, showcases the dichotomy of Mrs. Sharif’s acquiescent nature and the narrator’s mother’s outspokenness. Mrs Sharif holds an M.Sc degree and is a geography teacher at the narrator’s school. However, the ‘blackish bruise’ on her wrist blurs her independent status as a working woman, and instead bears traces of a vulnerable woman who is physically abused by her husband. In contrast to paying attention to geography lessons, the narrator takes an interest in Mrs. Sharif’s wound on her ‘lower back’, which she quickly hides from ‘curios eyes’ with the anchal of her sari. For her students, she becomes more a figure of inquisitiveness than a teacher. Her wanting a divorce with Mr. Sharif confirms her reluctance to being the victim of male dominance. However, the school’s refusal to provide accommodation (teacher’s quarter) to Mrs. Sharif and her children, due to her status as a divorced woman and mother of two, portrays the prevalence of a patriarchal domain within the society. In the midst of helplessness, Mrs. Sharif, along with her children, leaves town. Society members believe that she runs away with another man, thereby indicating a divorced Bangladeshi woman’s dependence upon a male partner. It further reveals a society wherein female ‘victim-blaming’ becomes evident. People heedlessly castigate Mrs. Sharif without acknowledging her status as physically abused (Shabnam Nadia stresses on victim-blaming in her interview). Mrs. Sharif’s ‘departure’ remains a mystery, yet it may just be her endeavour to escape a patriarchal society and gain the autonomy that she deserves.

Unlike Mrs. Sharif, the narrator’s mother is far from a victim of physical abuse (the narrator refers to her as ma). In fact, she antagonises it, and does not hesitate to speak openly about it with her husband: “That woman,”… “is abused”. In her terms, what is happening with Mrs. Sharif is unacceptable and the society as a whole should take some form of action. However she, as Shabnam Nadia states, is ‘merely paying lipservice’. When Mrs. Sharif comes to the narrator’s mother’s doorstep for a few days of shelter, she refuses to help. The apparent solidarity of womanhood exists in so far as Mrs. Sharif does not intrude on the narrator’s mother’s household. She fears that the society would chitchat about her helping a divorcée, how would this affect her child when the other children question her at school? Like the others, she too becomes a slave to the societal norms, who, though able to sympathise, is incapable of helping Mrs. Sharif. Her last words to Mrs. Sharif were: “You do understand, don’t you?”

This is a question that readers possibly struggle with. Should Mrs. Sharif understand the narrator’s mother’s problem? Is her problem justified? Among other spectacular stories in Ghuznavi’s collection, ‘Teacher Shortage’ represents the fictional politics of Bangladeshi feminism, whereby actions speak louder than words and silence becomes ‘courage’.