Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 1, September 1998

Hanifa Deen

Broken Bangles

Sydney: Transworld, 1988, paperback, $19.95

reviewed by Maria Degabriele

  1. The opening pages of Broken Bangles indicate that this book is no ordinary collection of life stories. It starts by describing a courtyord in the Mona Lisa Guest-House and Saleem Sultan, 'devout Muslim and Head Cook extraordinaire'. The Mona Lisa is clearly a masculine place, and it is described in the sort of lyricism usually reserved for fiction. So I began to wonder whether this book is indeed non-fiction and whether it is about women's lives. Saleem Sultan is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie's transgressive fictional characters who exemplify the blurred boundaries between the sacred and the profane. Saleem returns from dawn prayers from the mosque and 'sits quietly reading the Qur'an.... Religious verses and recipes become confused in his head although he tries hard to maintain a sombre concentration'. But it soon emerges that just as Rushdie embeds history and politics into his fiction, so too does Deen shape her non-fiction with glimpses of what Roland Barthes refers to as writerly writing.
  2. Hanifa Deen weaves together biography, history, politics, travel, and feminism to produce a powerful portrayal of a few particular lives in a few particular places in Bangladesh and Pakistan. And it is precisely the particularity of these accounts that makes the book's more general theoretical and political position so clear. Broken Bangles includes stories of well-known authors, obscure rural women, socialites, politicians, expatriate wives, publishers, and social workers.
  3. The book self-consciously avoids falling into the orientalist trap of claiming to be about Muslim women in general. Deen points out that such a term is too often 'used to describe women in countries as different as Morocco, Algiers, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Bosnia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the South Asia region'. However, the main similarity in the stories is that patriarchal control is maintained through the (idealised) family. Deen's avoidance of orientalist interpretations extends to the way she describes her experiences. Describing a courtyard the Mona Lisa as a kind of purdah, where she could see and hear others without anyone noticing her, Deen writes 'I stopped daydreaming just in time ... before I damned myself forever by slipping into my own brand of orientalism'. She leaves the Mona Lisa, goes out and meets women and lets them speak for themselves.
  4. The first story is about Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen, who now lives in exile. A fatwa was declared on her subsequent to the banning of her book Lajja (which translates to Shame, the same name as Salman Rushdie's fictionalized history of the partition of the sub-continent). People in Bangladesh responded to the Nasreen Affair (Deen uses this expression to deliberately evoke the Rushdie Affair) in different ways. Intellectuals saw Nasreen as having 'a lethal combination: a lack of knowledge and a loud mouth'. And there were others who saw Nasreen as courageous, because she refused to conform to a dogmatically patriarchal society. Either way, most people saw Nasreen as 'a female Rushdie in the making'. However, in a thoroughly scholarly manner, Deen explores the many facets of Nasreen's story, as she does the many facets of each of the other stories.
  5. In her analysis of the words of poor illiterate women, Deen uncovers the intelligence with which they live their lives. For instance, the story of the brutal murder of Yasmeen of Dinajpur by three police officers, unfolds through Deen's investigative work and also through Yasmeen's mother's own stream of words. Yasmeen was poor and young and had dared to travel on her own by bus. She was forcibly picked up by three passing police officers, raped, murdered and dumped on the road. The Yasmeen incident attracted wide attention to police brutality and the kind of ideology that allows that sort of thing to happen. And the Yasmeen story becomes emblematic of the threat of that sort of ultimate brutality which controls so many women's lives.
  6. Near the end of the book Deen writes:

      I think about the bangles which encircle women's lives: the politics of family relationships and the silent laws, systems and beliefs propping up ancient institutions: I think of religion, of poverty and patriarchy and how women are tired of being invisible.

    The idea of bangles provides a vivid metaphor for the unbroken cycle of patriarchal control that draws together this diverse range of stories. Indeed, the metaphor of brokenness suggests sites of women's resistance and increasing visibility. Nevertheless, the author never imposes the metaphor on the life of the stories themselves.

  7. Main

    Broken Bangles is available from
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    This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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