I once went to Kolyanpur slum for a survey. It was part of a research that aimed at assessing slum dwellers’ the access to public services available in Kolyanpur area. I was working in a team with another female colleague. The focus group discussion provided us with valuable insights that were beyond the scope of the study. One such insight was provided by an elderly man who has been living in the slum for more than twenty five years. While we were interviewing him, at one point, he paused to ask us a question. He asked ‘kichhu mone korbenna apnara je chakri kortesen sheta poribare somoshsha ache bolei kortesen to? taina?’ He meant ‘Do not mind if I ask? You girls are working because you have financial problem at home? right?’ We could not come up with an appropriate answer to this question. Days after the fieldwork, his remark was still haunting me. It took me a while to understand that it was not really a question. He actually made a statement disguised as a question about women who worked outside home. To him only economic crisis justified women’s paid work outside home. To him women’s paid work has nothing to do with women’s increasing self esteem, control over her life and exercising her agency. Needless to say that the Kolyanpur slum is a home for not only working men but also working women who took up myriads of underpaid jobs in order to survive. The set of underpaid jobs include working as garments worker, domestic worker, field-mobilisers for a number of NGOs.
Like many, I am well aware of the government-sponsored trope of women’s empowerment and the economic growth of Bangladesh. I have fiercely critiqued this version of women’s empowerment that disregards women’s double burden of maintaining successful family and working life. I always felt it also erased the serious security threat that women navigate everyday in Bangladesh. Not only is this true for garments workers but also for the white collar women professionals coming from the lower and higher middle class background. However, the reality is harsher for the working class women, particularly women garments workers. With nearly 16 hour work day, a worker may economically gain some, but at a very high price. They cannot afford nutritious food, visit doctors, or rent a proper place. Integration of women into formal economy as a cheap labour certainly made a great difference in their lives. These women are now decision makers to a certain extent. They practice their agency more than before. However, I always thought how much of it was done to achieve women’s empowerment? Is it not the ‘boon’ of multinational corporations investing in a country where there is a pool of cheap labor readily available to be exploited? The disregard that the man from Kolyanpur slum has shown to working women’s increasing control over their own lives speaks about men’s refusal to women’s sense of independent identity. It comes from a perception of ideal model of masculinity stemming from religious ideology.
In recent times, I was forced to broaden my definition of women’s empowerment. I could no longer remain concerned only about the burdens of globalisation on women. I had to look at what achievements we have had so far. Among many minor incidents like the one I mentioned above two of the most glaring events that compelled me to do so was the Holy Artisan Cafe attack and the event of Donald Trump being elected as the president of United States. The resurgence of right wing political ideologies all over the world made me aware about the vacuum that many social scientists of different school has been warning about. I finally accepted what Vashshoti Chokroborti wrote in her book ‘Pothe Bipode: Meyeder Nirapotta (2004)’. She said ‘Self reliance of women today is threatening men, women have become the enemy sex. Men can only feel assured by hijacking women’s security, self respect, independent thinking.’ She also added ‘The more women’s situation is improving, the more violence of men is increasing, it seems this number has direct correlation with the rise of crimes.’
Indeed, women have been gradually gaining more power than ever before in history and it came at the cost of curtailing men’s excess to power. This threatens to uproot the ideal model of masculinity. Men seek to restore their ultimate power by turning to violent, religious model of masculinity that believes men are superior to women. This violent model of masculinity believes that men hold the ultimate power. It denunciates all rights that modern women and other minority groups enjoy today. The female victims of Holy Artisan Café attack purportedly bore more scars of violence than others. This group also killed gay and transgender activists. Similar evidence can be found in western societies as well. I came to know about men’s rights activists of America two years ago. Activism of these groups is based on the belief that in contemporary American society women have more rights than men. To these groups feminism is the political belief that is based on the idea that women should have more rights than men. The rise of these groups not only indicates backlash of feminism but also the public resurrection of white supremacist, model of masculinity. These groups criminalise modern women who exercise control over their own body. They criminalise gay, trans gender and people from other religious groups. I should mention that while analysing I have also taken into account the fact that financial crisis, stark inequality between the rich and poor even in countries like United States has also played a major role in this phenomenon. The public resurrection of the white supremacist religious model of masculinity in USA is the reflection of the deep-rooted discontent of globalised world. This eventually contributed in the religious radicalisation of men and boys in both ‘core’ and ‘peripheral’ countries. This model of masculinity thrives at the cost of curtailing women’s rights. It is not a wonder that the first blow of attack from Trump administration came down to the Planned Parenthood and abortion policies that directly aid women to gain full control over their own body. Women of the United States could foresee what was going to happen. They organised a women’s march that took place at 21st January 2017, just the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump. The organisers of the Women’s March declared a nationwide stick ‘a day without woman’ where women have restrained themselves from working. American women are responding accordingly when their hard earned rights are facing severe threats from white supremacist, religious model of masculine power. Bangladesh too is on the verge of loosing the little achievements that modern women have gained so far. Our current society is deeply fragmented with unequal development. The elderly man from Kolyanpur slum represented a society where men are often unaware of women’s growing agency and autonomy. Women of Bangladesh have a lot to lose if we fail to resist this conservative, violent model of masculinity premised on religion. This can only be done through women’s collective and conscious efforts.
Habiba Nowrose is a writer and artist.
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