By Nuha Fariha
A quick Google search of Bengali women, or “Bong” women as they’re colloquially referred to, reveals an interesting picture. Bong women are portrayed as daring, well-read, cultured feminists, partiers, and foodies. In other words, it reveals the perfect reflection of the myth I’d been told growing up. Out of all the countries in South Asia, Bangladesh is hailed to be the most progressive in terms of women’s rights, an image that the country has thoroughly embraced. After all, the Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, Leader of the Opposition, and Foreign Minister of Bangladesh are all women. Yet, these Bong women, who are strongly embraced by the country, only make up one percent of the eighty million women in Bangladesh.
Another Google search shows a different type of Bengali woman. Only 3.5 percent of women own land; 30.8 percent of women over the age of 25 have a secondary education. Over 87 percent of women face domestic violence, but there have never been official convictions for these offenses. While 57.2 percent of women are in the labor force, 45 percent work in garment and domestic work industries, which offer little to no worker protection.
How is it possible for both of these conflicting images of Bengali women to exist at once? How can Bengali women be hailed as a paragon for social, political, and cultural progress, while gross gender inequities persist?
Looking into the history of the country, it is clear that such a paradox has always existed. Recently, I read Tahmima Anam’s painful, beautiful, and unrelenting novel The Good Muslim, which confronts the aftermath of the 1971 Bengali Independence War. Specifically, the story focuses on Maya Haque, a surgeon who operated on the hundreds of thousands of women raped during the bloody civil war by Bengali nationalists, the Islamic Party, and the Pakistani Army. Maya is the quintessential Bong woman, redolent in her recitations of Rabindranath Tagore and her appreciation of classical Western music.
More intriguing are the women that Maya “helps.” The over 400,000 women raped during the war, officially named the Biragonas, were mostly from the working class. They are, in modern Bengali history, largely forgotten. While any Bengali child can recite the name of Sheikh Mujib, they would be hard-pressed to remember a single Biragona. The name “Biragona” began to be a shameful term, almost an insult. In fact, during the war, Imams and other Muslim religious leaders publicly declared Bengali women as “gonimoter maal”—war booty—and thus openly supported the rape of Bengali women by the Pakistani Army. As a retaliation, the Bengali Nationalist Party condoned the rape of ethnic Bihari and minority Hindu women.
Similarly, the women who continue to be silenced today have low economic means. In my own life, I can see this divide clearly when I compare my grandmothers. My father’s mother was born to a poor family in the countryside. She married at age 14 and has worked her whole life to support her family. On the other hand, my mother’s mother was born to a slightly richer family. Despite being orphaned at an early age, she was able to obtain enough education to become a high school principal and support her family without a husband for several years. Slight differences can impact entire trajectories.
Even more disturbing is the lack of economic mobility. In contrast to its high economic and social growth, Bangladesh has the lowest rate of poverty reduction. In fact, the coefficient for income inequality in the country, the Gini coefficient, has not changed in the last 30 years. Such conditions can have dramatic effects on the female population. Despite the increase in literacy rates from 40 to 60 percent and reductions in infant and maternal mortality, it is difficult to see this inequity equalizing anytime soon. While female labor force participation has dramatically increased by 12 percent between 2006 and 2009 (in large part due to ready-made jobs in the garments sector and microcredit operations), women still face greater challenges to accessing finance and information, and female-headed microbusinesses rarely get the opportunity to compete in the male-dominated arena of trade and commerce. This severely limits job diversity and growth for women. Women are more likely to be employed in informal arrangements that have no guaranteed protections.
As a result, I have come to one conclusion: yes, Bangladesh is a liberal country and progressive in terms of women’s rights, but only if women can afford to pay the premium for that service.