The Women of Bangladesh
Low Status and Power Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries with 150 million people, 49 percent of whom live below the national poverty line. In addition, child malnutrition rates of 48 percent are the second highest in the world, a condition that is tied to the low social status of women in Bangladeshi society (THP).
Even though women constitute almost half of the population in Bangladesh, their status has been ranked the lowest in the world based on twenty indicators related to education, health, marriage, children, employment, and social equality (NCBP). Bangladesh is a very patriarchal society and gender inequality is evidenced in almost every aspect of life. Some studies have shown that the majority of women from rural areas are not aware of gender inequality because traditional beliefs keep them in the shadow of their fathers, husbands, and sons (Hadi).
Women are dependent on men all their lives because that is what they know. Their traditions and lack of education keep them pocketed away from society especially in rural areas, where after marriage they are not allowed to leave the home unless accompanied by a male relative. Bangladesh is one of the very few countries in the world in which males outnumber females; this provides strong evidence that there is a problem of missing women. Census data from 2001 shows that more than 2. 7 million Bangladeshi women were missing (SIGI).
There are no reliable statistics to quote, so estimates on the number of trafficked women and children are difficult to make. The crime is largely hidden despite its pervasiveness. Nevertheless, a total of 335 women and children were reportedly trafficked from Bangladesh in 2002 (BNWLA). In all fairness, it seems that stating “more than 2. 7 million Bangladeshi women were missing” from the 2001 census may pose more questions than answers especially considering many rural families do not legally record births, deaths and marriages because they haven’t been educated to do so.
Son preference is also prevalent in this society leading to female sex-selective abortions, neglect of girls (compared to boys) in early childhood and abandonment (SIGI). A report released by the U. N. Population Fund in 2000 asserted that 47 percent of adult women report physical abuse by their male partner. Much of the reported violence against women is related to disputes over dowries. Assailants who fling acid in their faces disfigure a number of women each year. Many of these attacks are revenge motivated by rejected suitors.
Few perpetrators of these acid attacks are prosecuted due to poor investigation and lack of eyewitnesses (OWP). Reproductive Freedom In Bangladesh, the use of the term “Reproductive Rights” is very recent. The common understanding of reproductive rights is that women should be able to decide and control their own bodies and reproductive behavior. However, many women living in rural and poor urban settings of Bangladesh are victims of physical, sexual, psychological, and human rights violations (Hossain and Akhter). Pregnant women have many potential causes for serious illness and complications during their pregnancy.
Early marriage, lack of proper nutrition, and multiple pregnancies are just the beginning. Abortion is not legal, and many women attempt to induce abortion or get assistance from untrained people in less than sanitary conditions. These factors often lead to sterility and sometimes death. The government decides which contraceptives will be made available to women and often due to lack of education; rural women are unaware of what is accessible to them. Additionally, “women have to take permission from their husbands to use contraceptives (Hossain and Akhter)”.
This means that women, especially the extremely poor, do not have a choice concerning the timing of pregnancies. A highly religious and patriarchal culture keeps women on the role of passivity regarding their own sexual health and those who resist are subject to spousal battering, dowry-related torture, marital rape, arbitrary family planning, and sexually transmitted diseases (Henningfeld 98). Sexuality / Lesbianism There is not much written in news articles or reports about lesbians in Bangladesh. In fact, any references to lesbianism are almost footnotes in ublications regarding homosexual men or LGBT.
In the article “An Analysis of Homosexuality in Bangladesh” by Ashok Deb on the LGBT Bangladesh website, the writer describes how invisible the gay and lesbian communities of Bangladesh are and the prejudices they face. Bangladesh has the second largest Muslim population in the world and homosexuality is forbidden in their culture. “Although not declared officially like [in] Iran,…. homosexuality does not simply exist.
The combination of homophobia and heterosexism in Bangladesh keeps the majority of gays and lesbians in “the closet. Lesbians in Bangladesh are dealt a double blow in regard to their rights; being women in a largely hetero-patriarchy society where women do not have the same liberties as men and being the sexual minority whose sexuality is controlled by society, religion and the legal system. Since the Bangladesh culture essentially prohibits a homosexual lifestyle, lesbians are forced to hide their sexual orientation to protect themselves and their families from physical and verbal attacks and/or community rejection. Thus to avoid social abrogation and rejection, a lesbian opts to marry a male partner… (Deb)”.
Such “invisibility” in culture and denial of sexual orientation can lead to serious psychological issues resulting in depression and sometimes, even suicide. Women’s Work In general, women are undervalued both in the formal and informal labor sectors; formal being the workplace where one receives a taxed paycheck and informal work situations such as contract basis, ‘under the table’ and ‘off the books’ (Burn 92). Bangladesh is one of the worst countries concerning gender pay gap, occupational sex segregation, and gender stereotypes in the workplace.
The World Bank’s 2012 labor report states that Bangladeshi women make 12 cents for every dollar a man earns! One of the contributing factors to the wage gap is called the human capital approach. This means that women are credited with less education, experience, and life skills to offer an employer versus that of a man, so they can be paid less (Burn 104). However, the young women of Bangladesh are starting to make changes in their lives and in society. Allowing women to work outside the home is one of the first steps to economic empowerment of women. There are still many cultures,
Bangladesh included, where women are dependent on men for everything, but that is slowly changing. Women without access to their own money are more likely to be forced to marry young, have many children, and have little to no education. Young women who are in the workforce have better mobility, access to better education and marry later in life. When these women do get married, they have control of their own reproductivity and are more likely than men to put their money back into their family in the form of better food, homes, health care, and education for their daughters as well as their sons.
Additionally, their daughter’s will have an even better education and that will give them the skills to make their own decisions about contraceptives, where to work, when to get married and how to use their earnings (Negash). Investing in the women of today can lead to less poverty tomorrow. One challenge for women in the workplace is sexual harassment. The general idea is as follows: typically, men committing unwelcome/ unwanted sexual advances toward women in the workplace.
The sex-role spillover theory posed by Gutek & Morash in 1982, suggests that how men and women perceive their roles in life (men seeing women in sexual terms and women trained to see this as flattery and not complain) ‘spills-over’ into the workplace. This leads to a few different kinds of sexual harassment; gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. Gender harassment is derogatory and insulting behavior toward women. Suggestive comments and physical contact comprise some aspects of unwanted sexual attention and the worst is sexual coercion; sex being required to get or keep a job (Burn 113).
However, there is very little written about sexual harassment toward Bangladeshi women in the work force. Unfortunately, several factors contribute to this problem. Women’s unwillingness to report harassment is the biggest one. Reasons that harassment is not reported may be any or all of the following: women are trained from childhood that any talk of the sexual nature is taboo, fear that if they do report the harassment they will lose their job, and worse, fear that they report it and their superiors will do nothing (Siddiqi).
The work environment in Bangladesh will not improve until the traditional gender role perspectives are changed by both men and women. Women in Development Households in rural areas of Bangladesh face several major environmental problems. Frequently, access to clean water and poor sanitary disposal contribute to villagers contracting gastrointestinal and other water-borne diseases. In addition, there continues to be loss of natural forest areas due to commercial tree felling for fuel and encroachments on agricultural settlements.
Clearly, there is a direct correlation between environmental issues and poverty; the poor are forced to address short-term needs, even if their actions contribute to the long-term depletion of natural resources (Rhaman and Roy). The Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development (BARD) has incorporated an Environmental Education program in one of its rural development projects, the Comprehensive Village Development Program (CVDP). Since its inception, CVDP has been working to establish a strong institutional framework at the village level with the active participation of the members of the communities (M.H. Chowdhury).
There are no short cuts in reducing poverty and increasing economic development in Bangladesh. The CVDP encourages local leadership and community participation by addressing rural problems related to development. The program works to implement strategies to empower the women and the poor in these communities. Women and Religion The major (state) religion in Bangladesh is Islam with Hindu in second position. Early Islam history shows that women were important leaders of the religion but now women are limited in their public participation; women can be leaders only in all female groups.
It is believed that the teachings of Islam are opposed to using masculine god language and promote all followers as equal and yet Allah is referred to as “he” and women do not have much of a public role in the religion (Burn 184). Fundamentalist Islam religious practices are very gender segregated; one reason women primarily participate in religious rituals within the home is because menstruation is considered unclean and they cannot enter a mosque or touch the Qur’an until their period is complete and have taken the ritual cleansing bath (Burn184).
Men claim that one of the reasons mosques are segregated is that women are a physical distraction, so men and women cannot pray together (Jehanzeb). Contrary to many Westerner’s beliefs, many Muslim women view traditional Islamic dress as a way to show their devotion to Allah, rather than a form of oppression. The use of the hijab (or veil) to cover the hair and the abaya (a long dress or coat and a headscarf) are expressions of women wanting to please Allah and follow Islamic teachings (Burn 185). Women in Politics
Although two women Prime Ministers have headed the Bangladeshi government alternately for the past 20 years, this does not reflect the ratios of gender participation in the Parliament or decision-making at policy level. While there have been many men in the ceremonial presidential position, there have been only the two women, Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia, alternating in the most powerful position of the country. However, even though they held high positions within the government, neither questioned the male dominance of politics in Bangladesh or tried to change gendered political structures in order to allow more female participation.
Islam plays an important role in both society and politics in Bangladesh. In 1988, an amendment to the constitution made Islam the state religion. To insure their participation and visibility in politics, many female Members of Parliment observe proper female Islamic dress code by covering their heads in public and participating in public religious rituals to show that they were practicing Muslims. It has always been very important to the people of Bangladesh that their statespeople be practicing Muslims (N. Chowdhury, Women and Politics Worldwide).
Despite the two top leaders of Bangladesh being female, women’s representation in parliament is small. The quota of reserved seats for women in the Bangladeshi Parliament is 45. These 45 of 300 total seats do not adequately represent the over fifty percent female votership in Bangladesh (N. Chowdhury). Thus, ensuring that women do not have an equal voice in Bangladesh’s politics. Women who are Members of the Parliament from those reserved seats are considered “ornamental” partially due to lack of participation but mostly because of the patriarchal views of women in the public sphere.
Also, women do not run for unreserved seats on parliament for many reasons. Some state they do not have the funding (because their money is controlled by their husbands), do not want to be linked to criminal activities, and some fear for their lives should they win. The political arena in Bangladesh is filled with corruption and many male politicians buy their way into Parliament or use assassins to eliminate competition (F. D. Chowdhury). Unfortunately, neither Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia used the power of her position to further women’s political growth or enhance their political competency (N. Chowdhury).
Gender Equality Movements The Bangladeshi Constitution affirms gender equality but women’s rights are often disregarded. Women and girls are disadvantaged in their access to education, health care, and financial assets (SIGI). Islamic Sharia law regards women as “custodians” but not legal guardians of their children. In the event of divorce under Muslim law, women can only retain custody of sons until age seven and daughters until puberty (SIGI). The husband has the right of unilateral divorce, for no cause at all. The wife has no such right and when her husband exercises his right; she has no redress.
Bangladesh’s largest women’s organization, Mahila Parishad, works to raise women’s awareness and provide equality in the laws that govern the country. Twenty years ago, they lobbied parliament to pass an Anti-dowry law due to the extreme violence against married women over dowries (Burn 252). Although this law is in effect, many families in rural areas still observe the dowry as part of the marriage arrangement. Unfortunately, due to extreme poverty and underdevelopment, women’s equality issues are not seen as important issues (N. Chowdhury, Women and Politics Worldwide).
Women in the Garment Industry Over 80 percent of Bangladesh’s garment industry workers are women, which is a large increase over previous studies (ILO). Traditionally, garment industry workers have always been men and when women were first hired, the men were not sure they could do the job. Only after watching women in action did that thought change. Breaking some of the typical gender stereotypes, there are now over 200 garment factories in Bangladesh that not only hire women to sew and iron garments but some allow women to move into ‘cutter’ positions, normally a position only held by men (ILO).
Still, occupational sex de-segregation has a long way to go. Some of these companies, like Babylon Garments Factory, are making great strides to create family-friendly facilities; a nursery for worker’s children and free medical treatment/ health care on the premises (ILO). However, there is still a lot of progress to be made before women can break through the glass ceiling in the Bagladeshi workforce. Women and Proper Etiquette There are many subtle nuances of proper etiquette concerning Bangladeshi women such as how to greet them, dining arrangements, and proper attire.
Greetings usually only take place between members of the same sex and women will really only be met within a business atmosphere; foreign men should nod to a Bangladeshi women unless she extends her hand and address her as “Begum” (“Madam”). Public displays of affection, even between husbands and wives, are considered immoral; particularly in respect to unmarried females (Shrestha). Women should not be photographed unless it is certain there will be no objections. Dining will typically be same sex inside and outside of the home.
Proper attire for Bangladeshi women includes a Saree (a type of dress), a Hijab (or veil) worn on the head so that no hair is showing with the common hairstyle, and hair worn in a Beni (twisted bun). Use of Western clothing is rare and exposure of cleavage, thighs and arms is discouraged (Shrestha). In Closing Women represent half the world’s population, and gender inequality exists in every country. Preventing half the people on this earth from reaching its full potential is shortsighted. Society in general is hurt when women and girls are deprived of equality (Negash).
For the women of Bangladesh, there are still some huge hurdles to overcome concerning the improvement of education for girls, health and reproductive care for women, and basic human rights. Optimistically, the changes that have already been witnessed will continue to spread so the next generations will be met with a promising future.