As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Firdous Azim, a member of women’s rights group Naripokkho, details the importance of feminist concepts in combatting gender segregation in Bangladesh today.
In 1905, the Bengali feminist writer, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain outlined the main contours of a feminist utopia in a novella aptly titled Sultana’s Dream. The dream was of a world where women run the nation and the home, and where men are confined in murdanas, echoing the zenana or the spaces where women were traditionally confined.
That utopian vision was based on a clear understanding of the categories of man and woman. As feminist thinking evolved, these divisions were themselves put to question and, in today’s ‘post-feminist’ phase, feminists have a hard time defining the grounds on which the movement is based. In the 1980s, for example, intersectionality was the term that combined the various interests of race, class and gender. We now talk about an assemblage of interests. So where does one place feminism, and more specifically the women’s movement within this assemblage of ideas, concepts and categories? What is the ground upon which feminist movements now stand?
The modern women’s movement in post-colonial societies usually traces its beginnings to national or anti-colonial movements, just as western feminism may be traced back to periods of democratic change. During various phases of the national movements, the place of women in the nation[s]-to-be was hotly debated, ranging from legal rights to even issues of proper clothing (the sari in our case). This debate continues and the struggle is for the participation of women in all spheres of public life.
In the case of Bangladesh, perhaps the greatest “success” that is touted is the large numbers of women in industrial wage labour. This is indeed a new development, and the advent of the ready-made garment sector has caught the public eye. The long lines of women going to work (a sight that the Dhaka cityscape witnesses every morning) have been lauded as an example of women’s economic participation and contribution. However, women’s work remains exploitative and gender-segregated. The conditions of garment workers in Bangladesh caught worldwide attention with the collapse of Rana Plaza, a building that had housed several garment factories. The fact that the labour force is largely female is perhaps responsible for the abysmal conditions in these factories, and the global movement for workers’ safety and rights now needs to address the issues of the female worker as well.
The other sphere is which women are seen to be working is as migrant labour. The Bangladesh economy is dependent on migrant workers, most of whom are men. However, a recent treaty with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has asked for female domestic workers. Discussions and debates centre on safety and sexual exploitation, where the issue of the pay being offered – 8000 riyals or 200USD – is neglected.
Women are interlocked in many battles over their bodies – from the religious right, that insists on full covering, to the media industry, which would have them slim and bare. The streets of Dhaka are “adorned” with billboards of “fair and lovely” women who have just cooked a delicious meal for their family. Scantily-clad images of women pressurise women to subscribe to a desired body shape, while on the other hand religious proselytising makes women cover themselves from head to toe. Women’s mobility is curtailed in the name of security, but has the effect of reinforcing values of gender segregation.
Women despite strides taken and miles travelled are still the ‘second sex’, and feminist concepts, ideas and movements are as vital today as they ever were.
Professor Firdous Azim is chair of the Department of English and Humanities at BRAC University, and a contributing editor for Feminist Review. Her books include The Colonial Rise of the Novel and Infinite Variety: Women in Society and Literature. She is a member of Naripokkho, a woman’s activist group in Bangladesh.