Celebration of International Women’s Day 2015 at Nari Diganta
By Nazratoon Nayem
Last Sunday, on 8 March 2015, the women in Movement for Equal Rights, Social Justice and Secularism at Nari Diganta have celebrated International Women’s Day 2015 with a diverse group of women and men belonging to 14 different ethnicities and nationalities in Britain. At a packed room of some 150 audience, the members of Nari Diganta have greeted Bengali creative women and renowned BME women’s rights campaigners at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in Tower Hamlets, London. The event was explicitly focused on secular Bengali women who have dedicated their lives to creative work and BME women’s empowerment in Britain and elsewhere.
The unusual event of progressive Bengali women kicked in with a greetings from the Secretary, Nasima Kajol, and an opening message by the Chairperson of Nari Diganta, Shamima Begum. It followed by a compliment of International Women’s Day from a secularist-sociologist and BME women’s rights activist, Dr Rumana Hashem. Rumana invites Sarah Begum, an award winning young film-maker and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, to screen her documentary film about Amazonian life. Sarah took the audience to her film through a showreel and slides followed by a biographical speech, demonstrating the difference, passion and courage that a creative woman does posses in terms of freedom and women’s struggle for emancipation.
Sarah’s talk was followed by a creative women’s panel and a bilingual discussion by three creative women from three backgrounds including music, film and theater. The panel chaired by Nari Diganta’s legal adviser, Piara Mayenin, was attended by a proclaimed Bengali classical vocalist Chandra Chakraborty, the film-maker and explorer Sarah Begum, and Bengali performer, Smrity Azad. The creative panelists have made a point that Bengali creative women are not just performers who would perform to please men and the society. Rather, they are innovative women who posses transformative power, who made valuable contribution to their respective societies by overcoming hazardous barriers and by choosing creativity and performance as a way forward to emancipation and progress of women.
The discussion by the creative women was followed by a panel of prominent BME women’s rights campaigners and secularists. The panel formed by Gita Sahgal, the producer of War Crime File,and a writer and the Director of Centre for Secular Space, and Maryam Namzie, an Iranian Secularist and the Founder and Spokesperson of One Law for All and Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation, was chaired by Bangladeshi women’s rights campaigner and a core group member at Nari Diganta, Rumana Hashem.
The event ends with a staggering cultural programme of Bengali dance, music and poetry by women and young girls. Finally the singing sensation Farzana Sifat appeared with her solo music, followed by a choir of the members of Nari Diganta.
The cultural event, presented by Nasima Kajol and Munjerin Rashid ended with a powerful choir ‘We remain undefeated, we will remain undefeated.’
Sunday’s IWD event at Brady Arts Centre was as unusual as festive, and was filled with lively music and songs of Bengali women. The diverse audience of a wide range of ethnicities, dressed up in their national outfits, have joined from Iran, India, Libya, Norway, Morocco, Poland, Pakistan, Spain, Sweden, Scotland, USA, and of course, Bangladesh and England.
Despite the delayed start and some alterations to the programme, audience have expressed their full-solidarity to the organisers and the women at Nari Diganta who have shown passion and ability to create a space for a mixed and secular audience in Tower Hamlets. The jolly composer of the event, Rumana Hashem started the evening by calling upon the audience to engage with the ideas of creative Bengali women who appeared on national dresses and on posh-colourful saris in festive mood. Dr Hashem says, explaining the importance of sari for Bengali women: ‘those who are new to Brady Arts and Community Centre or who joined us for the first time at Nari Diganta may get a culture shock by seeing Muslim Bengali women on fancy sari. Believe me it is our everyday dress and this dress demonstrates our professionalism back home. You got to take it easy. Note that we are Bengali women at work.’ The room broke into laughter and a festive breeze had been felt throughout the evening.
Inspite of threats of radicalism by the unexpected intruders who sneaked into the venue in the midst of the programme, without permission of the organisers, the festive atmosphere was obvious at the event. Both the audience and speakers remained calm and bold throughout. The support of the wonderful audience became apparent especially in their efforts of networking and friendly comments. The speakers and presenters were articulate in their statements that Bengali women are progressive, secular and not blind to male-dominated social norms and customs.
Vocalist Chandra Chakraborty declared, in her final comment, ‘indeed, women are the superiors in terms of their ability’. She argued that it is wrong to assume that men are higher than women in relation to ability of creativity and ethics of care. Even though it is mostly men who hold political power, women are the ones who have the real ability to do things innovatively and passionately. We must recognise women’s real power, she said.
In her remark about Nari Diganta, Gita Sahgal said that she was delighted to hear the powerful statements of the creative women and the secular ideas that they upheld. She thanked the women at Nari Diganta for taking a secular agenda in the question of women’s rights.
Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born women’s rights campaigner and secularist, has similarly expressed her thankfulness to the organisers for their courage to create a space for secular practices and for overcoming religious barriers in Bengali women’s lives.
She said, in her complimentary speech on IWD, ‘It has been great to join you all. We need to keep moving forward with a secular agenda from here’.
The pledge to women’s emancipation and secularism were apparent throughout the event. In her welcome message, Nari Diganta’s chairperson Shamima Begum Hena said:
‘I hope that you will enjoy the event and will stay with us. We are celebrating International Women’s Day at a juncture when our homeland, Bangladesh is burning, as many other countries. We are facing division and confrontation between the progressive and extremist forces. In such a situation women’s insecurity became most obvious in all of these countries. We remain vigilant and we try to establish a clear position in the question of women’s rights there and here. We want to celebrate International women’s day by recognising the good work that our Bengali creative women are doing in Britain, overcoming their situation every day. We want also to scrutinise BME women’s situation in Britain.’
She added, ‘We need to be critical and be careful to any uncritical solidarity. We need to avoid generalisation of BME women’s rights issues with all women in Britain. We want to be loud and clear about the real situation within which we work, and we want to hear how our creative women may make their voices against bigotry and oppressions heard. In a world of uncertainty, we need to be loud and clear about our mission, vision and achievements. I am very pleased to see that so many of you have come to our event, despite it being a Sunday.’
Following Hena, Dr Hashem invites everybody to join Sarah Begum’s talk. She added:
‘Sarah’s film is a politically informed documentary and it bears a highly political message of women’s empowerment and freedom. May I ask everybody please focus on the “theme” of the film rather than the “scene”’. In explaining the significance of the theme and the design of the programme, Rumana Hashem explains also that the programme was designed differently because it bore a political message for women’s empowerment, equal rights and bigotry-free society. She said: ‘We are a young organisation and only four years old. But as you would know, sometimes a four-year child can be more clever, bold, innovative, scrutinising and imaginative than many adults. We believe that today’s event would demonstrate this creativity and boldness of a four years old child. The design of our event is unusual and the theme is important. We hope that you will like it and you will bear with us.’
In commenting about IWD2015 at Nari Diganta, Nasima Kajol, the Secretary of the organisation told that: ‘We have tried to do something different, something new and something especial. I do not claim that it was a fully successful event in terms of Western discipline and order. Still I am pleased that we have done it differently than many traditional events in Tower Hamlets. One does not gain success in one day. I think that we are doing well as a young organisation. I am proud of our ability to unite in a secular and progressive political stand at Nari Digatna.’
The evening was filled with film, dialogue, music and dance with Creative Bengali Women speaking out against oppression and bigotry. It was partially sponsored by the Tower Hamlets Council, PCO Claims, Amifro Associates, Chambers of MM Hussain, and Hillside Travel. The organisers have greeted the sponsors with bouquet of flowers for the much needed support that the funders have provided to Nari Diganta as faithful friends and well-wishers.