The Sun descended in all its glory, spreading its tentacles of saffron across the pitch-black blanket. My parents and I set out from home on foot and headed towards a popular café in the neighbourhood for coffee and cheesecake. Upon reaching, we proceeded to place our orders. Despite our repeated attempts at garnering attention – first with the usual “Excuse me” and then with the harsher knock on the glass slab over the counter – the waiters did not look up from their unsolved crossword puzzles. As voices of men floated in the air, the waiters looked straight past us at a few male customers and processed their orders attentively and enthusiastically. Our orders were similarly processed soon after, albeit when Abbu (father) was placing them. Ammu (mother) and I gazed at our ghost-shadows. We existed but were not recognized as the decision-makers.
In another instance, after closing the sale of a bag to me, the cashier returned the change, winking at his colleagues and insinuating victory over the ‘weaker’ sex. As I counted the notes one by one, holding them under the white fluorescent light to identify their authenticity or lack of it, his eyes protruded against a pallid face in an unblinking stare. He had already reached for the cash-drawer by the time I stopped counting and found that he had handed me a lesser amount of money in change. This is a recurring scenario in every woman’s life – we are neglected as finance-controllers, we are faced with attempts of cheating as we handle money, we are given less than what is our due share of financial property, we are not trusted with money.
The origin of this problem can be traced back to the way a child is culturally socialized. “A man can lead his life without a woman, but a woman needs a man throughout her life” – a holy chant that a girl in Bangladesh customarily grows up with and one that I hear frequently to this day. One of the needs of a woman that a man is entrusted to fulfil is economic support. This is also the need that forces a woman to remain in an abusive relationship. Young girls are taught to rely first on the father (or the next closest male kin) and then on the husband or son. As a result, children are conditioned to believe that earning and making major purchase decisions are best left to a man.
I did not have a bank account till I was 22 last year. I would see Ammu with outstretched hands, asking Abbu for money to make even the basic of purchases, such as soaps and toothbrushes. Ammu and I would break down all the expenses to Abbu who would then decide which of those were “valid, worthy, and necessary.” This was when Abbu himself did not accompany us to shop and pay for goods and services on behalf of us. The problem is further compounded when the men in a family are pushed towards well-paid jobs and academic disciplines involving mathematics, finance, and technology, whereas the women are held back from doing the same: a flicker of ambition in her eyes and she is deemed a threat to family values. For 18 long years, I believed this to be the right path. I did not seek work and studied only half-heartedly.
Last year, Women and Child Development Ministry of India proposed a law that would mandate husbands to ‘pay’ a monthly salary to their wives for doing daily household chores. The amount will be tax-exempt and predetermined by the government. The amount is estimated to be around 10-20% of the man’s monthly salary that is to be deposited in his wife’s bank account. While the policy was lauded – by feminist lawmakers and homemakers alike – for being sensitive to the economic deprivation faced by housewives, I felt a key issue – apart from the social implications of the policy (trivializing a marital relationship to a kind of employment contract) – was still dangling in the air: rights of a woman to her own source of earning and to control over finance. The woman is still fully-dependent on someone else to bear her expenses. She is not being motivated to be economically self-sufficient and to exercise a significant control over her spending and saving decisions.
Religion plays a crucial role in the socialization process. In 2011, the Bangladeshi government approved the National Women Development Policy (NWDP), three years after it was proposed by the caretaker regime. The policy included provisions for the equal participation of women in employment, wealth, and education. More specifically, it granted women full control over earnings and inherited property. This was met with strong protests – once after the proposal in 2008 and again after approval in 2011 – by religious hardliners who misconstrued the policy as one granting equal inheritance rights (in Islamic traditions, a woman is entitled to half of her brother’s share even if she is the one who spends on the household) and branded it as an anti-Islam propaganda. In Hindu traditions, a woman has limited rights to inheritance. In practice, divisions of inheritance are generally administered by male relatives and scholars.
A month ago, a sermon recorded on video and released on Facebook and Youtube caused nationwide outrage in Bangladesh. In it, the 93-year old preacher alludes to women as a source of temptation like “tamarinds and even worse.” He cast aspersions on the chastity of women working in garments industry, a sector that is the backbone of Bangladeshi economy and that employs mostly women. He admonishes parents to avoid educating girls beyond Grades 4-5. As the video unfolded, my vision became hazy as my eyes welled up with tears. My hair stood on end and my cheeks felt unusually hot. I cringed and let out a gasp of disgust every now and then. The last time I felt this way was when I had watched a documentary on sexual abuse of children. His unabashed language and prehistoric views left me sexually-bullied. I witnessed the strangulation of women’s right to economic emancipation. Radical clerics who held similar views were largely ignored by the masses, but what makes this man especially dangerous and prominent is his substantial political and social power. He is the principal of a Madrasa, the head of Qawmi Madrasa Education Board, the leader of an extremist fringe group that opposes the NWDP and education policy, and an active political campaigner that shows allegiance to the mainstream opposition party – all these in Bangladesh.
Weeks before Eid-ul-Fitr, I went to a local bank to collect and deposit the stipend I had received from World Pulse. Stepping into the establishment, I felt I was thrust into a foreign terrain. Like sporadic bursts of blue and green in the arid desert, women – both as employees and as customers – made an insignificant composition of the total population there. Heads turned and stares lingered as I made myself comfortable on a revolving-chair at the bank premises. In this same bank, the mandatory official forms and other formal communication materials started with “Dear Sir” (without any reference to “Madam”) – a subtle indication of how women have been pushed to the backdrop of the banking scene.
Furthermore, women entrepreneurship is not well-received in Bangladesh. According to the Economic Census (2001-2003), women own approximately 3% of all enterprises. The businesses are concentrated mainly in traditional sectors, namely agriculture, beauty and fashion, handicrafts, and fast food. Various research studies in the past 5 years reveal women’s low access to bank loans and other institutional funds due to, for instance, prolonged loan-processing time. The poor, socially-marginalized women face the most brunt due to assumed lack of creditworthiness on double counts – first for being poor and then for being women. While government and NGOs are offering special women economic development programs and micro-credit schemes to redress the situation, a more conscious effort at the grassroots level is required.
Ever since I could differentiate equality from inequality, I realized economic freedom as a powerful means of empowering women. While it is not demeaning to receive financial support from family members (in fact, it is a defining principle of family values in Bangladesh to share resources), I want women to be on the giving end as well. Not cowering due to social expectations, I joined Finance classes just a year before graduation. Disproving misconceptions, I ranked the 4th highest in Corporate Finance (a concentration elective) course examination. Currently earning, I also make it a habit to pay the bill fully or at least partially when accompanied by a man at a restaurant. It reflects my willingness and ability to take charge of things, distributing the power dynamics fairly within a relationship.
Ammu beams with joy as I buy her a pair of earrings. She knows neither of us has to answer to a supreme male figure. She knows she would not have imagined this during the 1960s. She knows she will not depend on others for basic expenses as she is set to establish her own retail business that uplifts the economic status of other women in remote and marginalized communities by delivering their artistic creations to the flourishing urban markets.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2013 Assignments: Frontline Journals.