Feminism in Bangladesh: The Liberal And Conservative Gender Debate

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Bangladesh is always on the very edge of development and disaster. A flip of a coin could sway the winds any way for such a small, geographically compromised nation. Though it is failing in terms of political turmoil and uncontrolled population growth, it is one of the South East Asia’s success stories. Struggling with a 5 % GDP growth rate at a time when most of its neighbor does with much more sluggish rise in economy, Bangladesh has fulfilled nearly all of its Millennium Development Goals and has been hailed as a Frontier Five country to look out for by Goldman Sachs.

At the heart of its development there has been a loosening of social stigma against female empowerment. With non-governmental organizations (NGOS) and the government working alongside to fund female entrepreneurs with micro loans or raise the minimum wages of garments workers (the biggest industry in Bangladesh with majority female workforce), the tides have turned for historically oppressed women. The average Bengali girl can now go to school because the government pays her family if she does. The average Bengali woman is given leave to pursue her dreams outside her home town because there are job opportunities tailored to her skills. These simple facts are extraordinary forces in shaping Bangladesh into a country where women can seek their rights in the ways they feel are suited to them.

Domestic violence is on the rise, sexual harassment too, but the average Bengali now has a job or the hope of a job if she chose to go to court which has special courts designed to facilitate her social weaknesses. She is more keenly aware of laws and lawyers that get her voice across. And her voice is no longer limited to that village square where she was once victimized because now she has a cellphone. More than 6 million cellphone users in a country of 14, has ensured that not one person can claim to be out of reach of much needed help. Women now sell on the phone, shop on the phone, fall in love on the phone and even marry on the phone. It is a strange world than that a decade ago where even the places near the capital did not have basic electricity.  And yet the average educated woman will scoff at the idea of feminism.

Attempt to engage her in a discussion on the merits and demerits of it and she’ll wave it away as a ‘western propaganda meant to demean our way of life’. Ask her if she believes in equal rights, she’ll definitely say yes. Where does the negative image arise and how is it propagated on such a mass level? What can be done to bridge the gap between the Western feminist and Eastern one?

It is important to note that with social movements as big as feminism, it’s extremely difficult to tailor-fit regional requirements. That means the movement works on different things in different that might seem irrelevant or non-relatable. The East is struggling to empower women to pursue education and work, to avoid underage marriage and to reduce violence against women. People of Western liberal democracies are concerned with wage inequality between genders, campus rape, street harassment and fair representation in media. They have come so far that they have taken another step forward to talk about the unfair gender discrimination men face in the form of job expectations, life decisions, and emotional availability. The Western liberal democracies have moved on to finer points of feminism – the woman is out the door and she’s speaking up not only for herself, but for her other half.

The Eastern feminist is not so lucky yet. Women do have more jobs – but the entirety of domestic work still lands squarely on their shoulders. They have more education in the secondary education level – few go on to pursue their dreams in tertiary level. They file more cases in the violence against women courts but get fewer results– settlements are so much easier for their families and societies to accept. However, everyday acts of sexism hack their confidence a little at a time.

So it’s understandable, even expected, that a woman who fights back such obstacles and comes out winning should feel no obligation to a movement that doesn’t seem to speak about her reality or the realities of millions of others like her. The Western feminist has a louder media (a quite controversial one too). Every tiny incident is amplified to regard the good and bad sides. The everyday acts of bravery in the developing world are still not rare enough for the media to go on about, whether they are feminist or not.

Above all, women do face greater odds than men. They do have institutional prejudice, social pressure and hundreds of years of oppression still largely at play. Once they break the shackles, they can help men build a world where both can live more freely.

Here’s looking forward to that world.

By: Mastura Tasnim



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