“The very seeds of our independence movement were sown when, in 1948, the government of Pakistan declared Urdu, not Bengali, the official language of East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known. And during the 1971 war of independence, faith and language were pitted against each other in the struggle over nationhood: The Pakistani Army would randomly stop people and ask whether they were Muslim or Bengali — as though to speak Bengali precluded being a true believer.
“So the writing on the wall today contains an echo of that old conflict. It tells Bangladeshi citizens that it is acceptable to urinate on their own language, but not on Arabic. At a moment when the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism looms large, the subtext of the signage is to declare the conservative religious forces triumphant in this symbolic struggle over language. . . .
“Even if the city corporation built more toilets, though, it would not begin to address the real sanitation crisis in Bangladesh: the near-total lack of access for women. In Dhaka, men can commit this private act of urinating with impunity in almost any public space. And when they do so, they are expressing their absolute freedom to do as they please — on streets where women’s basic safety is not guaranteed.
“The Arabic lettering campaign focuses entirely on getting men to do their business elsewhere. Overlooked is that women can’t use the streets at all, reinforcing the social norm that public space is controlled by men and off limits to women. The invisibility of women’s needs is all too apparent in the minister’s proposal, for women are effectively barred from most mosques.
“Any campaign to address the public nuisance of men urinating on the streets should also tackle the absence of facilities for women. Otherwise, we are simply saying that our streets belong to men, and our walls to Arabic.”
I really like the gestures toward intersectional analysis in this op-ed — classism, labor rights, sexism, and imperialism. The right to speak Bengali, along with presumptions regarding linguistic connotations to religion or dignity and integrity, becomes enmeshed in political oppression.