Mapping female emancipation
autonomous womanhood vs. dasi
By rahnuma ahmed
His comments made me stop in my tracks, I began re-thinking why I had proceeded as I had. I’d suffered nagging doubts about Part II after it had been published. May be, the discussion had been too academic, may be it had turned some readers off.
My brother, the one in London, had e-mailed me, saying among other things, ‘[I look for] what can you tell me that reveals a little more about the relationship [she] had with [her] work…[I read, to discover what], as people say, delivers that one ‘a-ha’ moment.
As I began working on Part II, I remembered something which I’d been told long ago by a faculty member at Sussex university just before her seminar began. ‘Oh, 90% of my presentation will be a preamble.’ ‘Preamble? You mean as in the constitution…?’ ‘Yes,’ she chuckled. ‘It’ll be about the purpose of my study, it’s philosophical underpinnings, how I steer and navigate myself through what has been written thus far on the subject…where I situate my own efforts.’
May be I could re-direct Saif’s comments toward myself, I thought, my relationship with this business of re-reading. It would help recap what I’d written in Part II. It would also help readers see where I situate my own efforts.
Re-reading Begum Rokeya for me, has involved taking stock of what has been written about her. Of critically thinking through what sense we have made of her life and struggles, her achievements, what we think she was up against and why. It has meant engaging with some thorny issues in feminist theory. And of course, it has inolved returning to Rokeya Rachanavali (1984), again and again. Continue reading “RE-READING BEGUM ROKEYA ? CONCLUDING PART”
Mapping female emancipation
autonomous womanhood vs. dasi
By rahnuma ahmed
In yesterday’s column, I had written that Bangladeshi scholars, researchers and intellectuals who have sought to understand and appreciate Begum Rokeya (1880-1932) have ignored issues of class and gender. Gender, too? you might well have wondered. Since Rokeya is a woman, how could any author who has written on Rokeya ignore the issue of gender?
Yes, gender as well, and to explain what I mean, I draw on an essay written by Marxist intellectual Farhad Mazhar, which, I hasten to add, is not about Rokeya but about Karl Marx’s theoretical attention to the question of women’s emancipation, ‘Narir Mukti o Shompotti: Itihash Bigyaner Moulik Obosthan Proshonge’, Women’s emancipation and property: The central position of scientific history (Proshongo: Nari Mukti Andolon, edited by Liakat Ali, Dhaka: Pothikrit Prokashoni, 1999).
In an otherwise brilliant essay, a couple of sentences by Mazhar in the opening paragraphs will surely not escape the attention of discerning scholars of women’s history. ‘Needless to say, the amount of work written by Karl Marx on ‘capital’ in no way equals the amount which he wrote on women. Women were not his subject. But does that mean that he lacked any original scientific thoughts on the issue of women? This is the central question that our essay engages with. In other words, our enquiry will be concerned with whether he did or did not have any original ideas on the issue of women, and that, whatever be the reason, these thoughts were not written down.’ (p. 80). Continue reading “RE-READING BEGUM ROKEYA ? PART II”
By Rahnuma Ahmed Honouring Begum Rokeya, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina at Begum Rokeya Padak 2010 programme, Osmani Memorial Auditorium, Dhaka, December 9 2010. Photo: Yasin Kabir joy/focusbangla. crop: Mir Ashfaquzzaman
Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, currently the most powerful woman in Bangladesh?recently rated the sixth most powerful woman in Asia, included in Forbes’ annual list of the politically most powerful hundred women in the world ? while awarding the prestigious Rokeya Padak 2010, to give public recognition to women who have made outstanding contributions in securing women’s rights, spoke with a `man’ tongue.
In other words, she blamed women. It was vintage patriarchy, albeit, suitably modified to a modern-day context.
While prime ministerial speeches on such occasions are generally devoted to self-congratulatory rhetoric and platitudes, Sheikh Hasina’s speech seems to have been different. I glean this from news reports.
She spoke at length about stalking and other forms of sexual harassment which have escalated to outrageous levels over the last year. Which target girls and young women, in particular. Students in particular, girls who are studying in the nation’s schools, colleges, universities and madrasas.
But given the figures released by women and human rights organisations on the International Day against the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25), notably the worst in 3 years, further, the numbers reported in each category are higher than that for the whole of last year,
489 women were raped
53 women and 23 girls were killed, after being raped
4 girls committed suicide, after being raped
71 had acid thrown on them
342 were subjected to dowry-related violence
210 women and 7 girls were killed
102 women were tortured
21 women committed suicide, after being tortured
given that these figures have since increased, what could be more shocking for women?and for men too, since 9 have been killed while trying to protect girls against stalking and assaults?than to listen to the PM exhort girls and women to “face” stalkers bravely. To “show courage.” Why “choose” suicide, something as extreme as that? There is “no reason,” she said. Learn self-defence instead. Wear “modest” clothes. The last piece of advice was delivered with a personal touch, “I never encountered any obstacles.” Guardians, she stressed, should teach their children religious morals and cultural values.
The prime minister, I hasten to add, spoke of other things as well. Of policies and programmes undertaken by her government which benefit women: extending maternity leave to six months. Making it easier for a widowed woman to gain access to her husband’s pension. Initiating the payment of pensions to widower-husbands married to government employees, so as not to discriminate against men. Promising to reactivate the Women Development Policy, a central demand of the women’s movement for many years.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with some of her messages. Urging girls not to be frightened. Not to think of themselves as victims. To fight back and resist. To remind us that rights must be struggled for, that they are never served on a silver platter. That enacting laws is never enough. That public awareness is needed.
Of course, public awareness is needed. What Nashfia Akhand Pinky?a 13 year-old student of class IX who was incessantly stalked by her 22 year-old male neighbor and some of his friends, who persisted with “ribald comments, smutty jokes, coarse laughter, sly whistles and even indecent exposure”?wrote in her suicide note is a severe indictment of those members of the public who were present but had not lifted a finger, “When [my tormentor] pulled my scarf and harassed me physically in front of the house [when he slapped me], onlookers at the scene laughed. Nobody protested” (BBC News).
But manonio prime minister, when girls (and their families) do “show courage,” do not “choose” suicide, “face” the situation bravely, what can, and has, happened? Ten Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL) activists of a group of sixteen, allegedly gang-raped a class VII student in Pakhimara (Patuakhali) in September last year. Her relatives rushed to the scene with police officials, two of the culprits were arrested from the scene of the crime. What happened next? Were the rest of the offenders arrested? Was the case investigated? Were they tried? No. The two caught were freed, a farcical village arbitration attended by local-level Awami League influentials was held, all 16 were fined Tk 10,000 each and 100 whippings. The AL upazila Unit secretary denied allegations of rape, dubbing them (mere) “spoiled brats.” He asked the girl and her father to affix their signature to 3 blank sheets of paper, he told them to not seek justice elsewhere. The victim’s father `chose’ not to file a case, the police didn’t proceed any further.
Did high level Awami League leaders `show courage’ by taking up the matter? Did the party institute an internal inquiry, castigate local-level AL leaders, publicly extend all possible support to the victim’s family? Did the government instruct the police to proceed with a criminal investigation, did it insist that charges of rape should be brought, that those who attempted to hush up the matter should also be tried? For obstructing justice? No. It `chose’ to look the other way, to pretend nothing had happened?not only in the Pakhimara incident but in scores of others?until girls were assaulted at the Pohela Boishakh concert on Dhaka University campus this year.
The denial that had prevailed had become untenable by then, as sexual assaults and violence had not only increased but in many cases, the perpetrators were reportedly leaders and cadres of the ruling party’s student (BCL) and youth (Jubo League) organisations. But a culture of impunity had also set in, which was ideologically furthered by the `No to Eve Teasing’ campaign, launched by Dhaka University Rover Scouts in April. Inaugurated by the DU vice-chancellor, the campaign and its vocabulary, was almost immediately picked up by the education minister, swiftly followed by governmental departments, the AL propaganda machine, several women’s organisations, significant sections of the media, and the culture industry.
The seriousness of sexual offences not only became diluted, they became de-criminalised, as the elected government, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court ruling on sexual harassment, constructed victims as `Eve,’ as ones who tempt men, who make them wayward. The attitude of government policy-makers was best expressed in the name given to one of the drives to catch stalkers and assaulters: Operation Romeo Hunt.
Is it therefore surprising that the prime minister now blames women? That she says, so-called ultra-modern women “don’t bother to keep their modesty,” that they wear “too small clothes”? Sheikh Hasina would be well-advised to desist from blaming women, if for no other reason than to maintain a distance from the Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami’s line of reasoning on the same subject. Before being chucked into jail (presumably to be tried soon on charges of war crimes in 1971), he too, had blamed women. At a discussion on so-called `eve-teasing,’ he had said, it happens because women go out at night (Daily Star).
Blaming women, one would have hoped would be avoided by those who identify themselves as muktijuddher pokkher shokti. Because it serves to demoralise resistance. It serves to weaken arguments for seeking justice for sexual crimes committed against women, whether in 1971, or at present.
And while I am all for women learning self-defence techniques, martial arts, kung-fu, judo, karate, the whole lot, the prime minister seems to imply that the transformation of Bangladeshi girls into `tough, butt-kicking chicks’ (as in western movies) will solve the problem of stalking, harassment and rape?of all forms of sexual violence directed against girls and women. No, it won’t. Their safety and security cannot be ensured by drawing on myths of `girl power’ created and re-created by the Hollywood film industry. To attempt to do so, is a denial of culpability and complicity.
According to news reports, Sheikh Hasina quoted this line from Begum Rokeya, “Whenever any sister has tried to raise her head she has been suppressed, either through invoking religion, or through the shastra,” but to assume that it is equally true for present-day Bangladesh, would, I think, be somewhat misleading. The incidences of assault and violence that have been reported in the newspapers?which make us angry, and grieve, and resist? have not been conducted by what are generally categorised as `religious forces.’ Newspaper reports at least, do not indicate this. Unless we can specify the violence that women face under particular regimes, we will never be able to resist it. Neither intellectually. Nor creatively. Nor collectively.
There are other issues that need to be addressed. The sexualisation of women in contemporary western societies?some have termed it hyper-sexualisation?has become a matter of deep concern for many feminists. Popular culture has witnessed a highly visible shift, says Rosalind Gill, new femininities have been constructed which speak of a shift from sexual objectification of women to sexual subjectification, it capitalises on the notion of the sexually autonomous young woman. This, in the neo-liberal era, places psychological demands on young women to make life knowable and meaningful through a narrative of free choice and radical autonomy, regardless of actual, real constraints. Others have noted how soft pornography has gone mainstream in western cultures, how it pervades popular culture. Closer to home, Bollywood’s going `international’ has meant the adoption of western traits, such as songs and dances infused with hip-hop elements, leading to `sexier,’ more complicated choreography, slimmer female bodies wearing skimpier outfits, expressing, in overall terms, a “heightened sexuality.” These sexualised images travel across cultural and geo-political borders via satellites and internet in the present globalised world; they are reinforced in complex ways through the culture industry in Bangladesh (advertising, TV plays), and through the officially unacknowledged local pornography industry.
The question that we must urgently face is this: are ordinary girls, from common, struggling backgrounds?whose physical presence in public space is real (non-virtual) unlike that of their rich counterparts?having to bear the brunt of other women’s fantasies of sexual autonomy? Published in New Age, Monday December 13 2010
I have been locked up in the socially oppressive iron casket of `porda’ for all my life. I have not been able to mix very well with people, as a matter of fact, I do not even know what is expected of a chairperson, I do not know if one is supposed to laugh, or to cry.
With these opening words, Begum Rokeya launched into an incisive critique?and that too, characteristically?of the state of Muslim women’s education in colonial, and undivided, Bengal.
But before doing this, while acknowledging with all humility that the women in her audience were far better-educated than her own self, that the gathering consisted of “learned, graduate women,” she gently pointed out that her services to literature and society for the last 20-21 years, her experience of running the Sakhawat Memorial Girls School for 16 years, had provided her with the courage to speak in front of such a distinguished assembly.
To speak about women’s education means that one must necessarily talk about the social situation. This cannot be avoided, it is inevitable. And to talk about the social situation means that one must cast glances at the neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour which our Muslim brothers have shown towards us. That too, cannot be avoided, that too, is inevitable. We have a proverb, she said, `to speak of one’s misfortune is to cast aspersion on others.’ This, thereby, impels us to face the question, how can we give Muslim girls a good education? How do we educate them well?
Men have deceived women through the ages, said Rokeya, and women have silently suffered. Recently, however, `Sri Krishna’ has bestowed kindness on our Hindu sisters, this is why one notices signs of awakening among different Hindu communities. Women in Madras have advanced the furthest, and we now hear that a woman has been elected the deputy president of the Madras Legislative Council. We also hear that a woman has become a barrister in Rangoon. And, of course, lady Barrister Miss Ghorabji is already well-known. But what does one have to say about Muslim women, except that they continue to live in the darkness in which they have been living, for ever so long?
You will not find even 1 literate girl among 200 girls, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education. You will not find a truly educated Muslim woman, probably not even 1 in 10,000, that is the situation of Muslim women’s education; and mind you, nearly 3 crore people live in Bengal. The education department wrote me a letter last January, they needed, quickly, they said, the names and addresses of all Muslim women graduates in Bengal. But I couldn’t give them any other name than the only woman graduate we have, plus that of Agha Moidul Islam shaheb’s daughter but since Agha shaheb is not a resident of Bengal, this means that there is only 1 (Muslim) woman graduate in a population of 3 crores!!
A little later, Rokeya tucks in these lines, and this is what makes Begum Rokeya great, it is a greatness that rests on cutting-edge intellectual sharpness, is politically astute, confronts structures of power and privilege while simultaneously engaging with them, maintains a critical distance even as she works from within these institutions, and it is this, I insist, that makes her voice distinct from the `imploring’ voices which 19th-20th century Bengali women writers often adopted, or felt forced to adopt . Rokeya says, “Just as the kind-hearted British government is unable to tolerate the aspirations of the Indians?I remember, Mr Morley said 21 years ago, If they cry for the moon, it doesn’t mean we have to give in to their wishes?just as our non-Muslim neighbours generally cannot tolerate the demands of the Muslims, Muslim men too, in exactly the same manner, cannot accept the fact that women desire their advancement.” In other words, there is nothing natural about the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” of Muslim men, they are not accidental, nor incidental for that matter, such behaviour is inextricably linked to social power and privilege, ones that are fundamental, deeply-rooted. Ones that are, in the final analysis, political, marking as they do, the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion into assemblies of the “learned” and the “educated.” Marking those who have power. Those who withhold power.
We have shown respect towards you, Begum Rokeya. The first women’s hall of residence in Dhaka university (in its early years, known as the `Oxford of the east’) was named Rokeya Hall (1964) . One of the busiest roads in Dhaka city, close to the parliament building, is named Rokeya Shoroni. The government awards Rokeya Padak each year to women who have struggled hard to contribute to the betterment of women’s lot, the government girls college in Rangpur is named Begum Rokeya College (1963), and the newly-built public university in Rangpur (2008)?the first public university in the northern region?was re-named Begum Rokeya university to honor the “legendary woman scholar who pioneered and promoted female education in Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontinent.” Social and cultural organisations too, revere you, for all that you fought and struggled for, in a life that was abruptly extinguished at 53, and of course, for the women’s movement, you are the lamp that lights our heart. Bangladesh Mohila Porishod named its safe haven for women, Rokeya Shodon, in your honor. The Department of Women and Gender Studies, Dhaka University holds Begum Rokeya Memorial Lectures on December 9th every year, and we are indebted to Rokeya Memorial Foundation, at whose initiative, Rokeya Dibosh is observed every December 9th, since 1986, the day that you were born, and the day that you left us. It would be amiss if I were not to mention our indebtedness to Abdul Kadir for having immemorialised your writings through editing the collected volume of your work Rokeya Rachanavali, (Bangla Academy, 1973). And, to Roushan Jahan too, for having edited and translated your scathing indictment of porda, Inside Seclusion: The Avarodhbasini of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Women for Women, 1981), thereby making some of your writings available to an English-reading audience.
And since 1994, Rokeya Dibosh is observed by the government, floral wreaths are placed at your birthplace in Pairaband village in Rangpur; scores of organisations take part in discussions and cultural programmes, all over the nation, all in your honor. It is customary too, for the president and the prime minister, and the leader of the opposition, to send messages to the nation on the occasion of Rokeya Dibosh to remind us of you, of all that you fought for. In her message last year, Sheikh Hasina reminded us that if you had not shown us the path, women in present-day Bangladesh would not be working in offices, courts, mills and factories, in fields and farms, and in trade and commerce.?While Khaleda Zia, as prime minister, reminded us several years earlier that we are enjoying the “fruits” of your struggle, that it is because of you that women in Bangladesh have now become judges and barristers, have joined the army, they fly planes and work in nearly all professions by dint of their “own competence and efficiency.” She had added, if not forced to enter national-level politics to uphold the ideals of her husband, the late president Ziaur Rahman, she would have dedicated herself to building up a social movement for the emancipation of women.
But present-day Bangladesh, according to newspaper reports, has registered a nationwide drop in the number of girls attending schools because sexual harassment and violence has horrifically escalated over the last year. Is it possible to talk about the “misfortune” that has befallen them, without “casting aspersions” on others?
On the prime minister?who reminded us in a seemingly self-congratulatory manner when awarding Rokeya Padak last year, that the prime minister, leader of the opposition, deputy leader of the house, home minister, foreign minister, agriculture minister, labour minister, and women and child affairs minister, “are all women”?because the leaders and cadres of her party’s student and youth organisations have allegedly been, in many cases, the offendors. That, to deflect public outrage, the long-discarded notion of `eve-teasing’ was re-introduced, in utter contempt of last year’s High Court verdict which ruled that any kind of physical, mental or sexual harassment?note, not `eve teasing’?of women, girls and children was a criminal offence, that the return of `eve-teasing’ served to dilute, and to de-criminalise these?offences.?That it helped create a culture of impunity which has contributed to an escalation in sexual harassment and violence, as demonstrated by the outrageous rise in figures released on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (November 25).
Is it possible to talk about the misfortunes of our school girls, and also, their guardians, some of whom have been killed while attempting to protect them, without casting aspersions on the leader of the opposition for leading a political party which has been galvanised into action when she was forced to leave her house, who has since preferred to desert the parliament, instead of entering it and demanding answers from the government about what concrete measures are being taking to stem sexual violence. Without casting aspersions on all who are complicit in the conspiracy of silence?sections of the media which continue to report incidents of `eve-teasing.’ Some women’s organisations which are noticeably less vocal now than when Yasmeen of Dinajpur was `eve-teased’ (raped and killed by policemen, an incident which was capitalised upon to bring down the BNP government). Will only a change of regime galvanise them into action? Into calling, for instance, a nationwide boycott of schools by girl students until effective measures have been taken by the government to ensure their safety?
Violence against girls keeps spiralling upwards: on December 4, a 17 year-old college girl in Barguna lost her leg because she spurned an `eve-teaser’ who hacked it (Daily Sun, 5 December) . And yesterday’s newspaper reports that a stalker knifed a 14 year-old madrassa girl because she refused his proposition (New Age, December 8). In both incidents, the girls and their families had lodged complaints with the local thana, but no action had been taken.
Unfortunately, Begum Rokeya, the “neglectful, indifferent and miserly behaviour” towards educating women that you spoke of enfolds us too?we, who are what we are because of you?because we are either too busy eating the fruits of your struggles, or dreaming of future fruits, or choose to remain passive, or to play it safe. You were right to remind us that education is not only about acquiring degrees and certificates, that unless a qualitative change in the state of one’s mind has occurred, we remain murkho, we remain enslaved..
And today Begum Rokeya, we, both men and women of this country, will provide ample evidence of that. Flowery words will escape many a lips, all in your honor.
As you shudder in your grave. Published in New Age, Thursday December 9, 2010
“A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests….”
— Begum Rokeya, Sultana’s Dream (1908)
New York, 1906
Clara Lemlich, a young Jewish woman, joined a group of shirtwaist makers. They wanted to form a union, but didn’t know how. Six young women, six young men and Clara formed Local 25. In those days, the ILGWU (International Ladies Garment Workers Union) was small. Most of its members were male cloakmakers.
Although Clara was determined to be a “good girl,” two days later she was talking union. The oppressive conditions at work made her angry. The forewoman would follow the girls to the toilet. She would needle them to hurry. New girls would be cheated, their pay was always less than agreed upon. The girls would be fined for all sorts of things. They were charged for electricity, needles, and thread. “Mistakes” would be made in pay envelopes, they were difficult to get fixed. The clock was fixed so that lunch hour was twenty minutes short. Or, it would be set back an hour. Not knowing, they would work the extra hour. Unpaid (Meredith Tax, “The Uprising of the Thirty Thousand”).
Clara took part in her first strike in 1907. At one of the union meetings, strikers argued about “pure-and-simple-trade-unionism.” Clara asked one of them what that meant. They went for a walk. Her first lesson in Marxism took place during that forty block long walk. “He started with a bottle of milk?how it was made, who made the money from it at every stage of its production. Not only did the boss take the profits, he said, but not a drop of milk did you drink unless he allowed you to. It was funny, you know, because I’d been saying things like that to the girls before. But now I understood it better and I began to use it more often?only with shirtwaists.” (Paula Scheier, “Clara Lemlich Shavelson”).
In 1908, the first Women’s Day was initiated by socialist women in the United States. Large demonstrations were held.
In 1909, a Women’s Day rally was held in Manhattan. It was attended by two thousand people. The same year, women garment workers staged a general strike. Known as the Uprising of the Thirty Thousand (or Twenty Thousand, depending on the source), the shirtwaist makers struck for thirteen weeks. The weeks were cold and wintry. They demanded better pay, better working conditions.
Things are better now, says Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garments Sromik Oikko Forum (Shomaj Chetona, 1 January 2008). Of course, there are still problems. Workers wages are not paid within the first week of the month. Overtime payments are irregular. Festival allowances and festival leave is not forthcoming unless the girls take to the streets. The minimum wage (1,662.50 taka ?USD 24) is not paid. There is no earned leave. No weekly holidays. Girls do not get maternity leave. If they become pregnant, they get sacked. Appointment letters are not issued. No identity cards are given. They do not get government holidays . For unknown reasons, the eight hour work day, the result of the 1876 May Day movement, and other international movements organised by workers, is not followed in the garment factories. Safety standards in most factories, many of them located in residential areas as opposed to industrial ones, are horribly lacking. These factories, says Mishu, are “death traps.” These traps have killed five hundred workers. Electric short-circuits have led to fires, workers fleeing to save their lives have been trampled to death, locked exits have remained locked even during accidents, or poorly-built buildings have collapsed burying workers underneath the rubble. Mishu spoke of the collapsed Spectrum garment building in Savar, of factory workers in Tejgaon, and of KPS factory workers in Chittagong.
Things are a bit better now, says Mishu, who has been organising workers, and fighting for their rights for the last thirteen years. It was far worse in the beginning. Girls would be worked to their bones. They would work the whole night, but would not get their night bills. Nor would they be paid their overtime bills. Often, not even their basic salaries. There would be a lot of dilly-dallying over wages, aj na kal, this would go on for 2-3-4-5 months. And then, one fine morning the girls would come and and find that the owners had packed up and left. In the middle of the night. No wages, no overtime, nothing in exchange for many months of hard labour. Having a trade union to protect their rights was unheard of. Not only was there no maternity leave, if a girl’s pregnancy was `discovered,’ she would immediately lose her job. She would be forced to leave, penniless. Physical assaults, beatings, threats of acid attack, other forms of intimidation were common. Owners do not regard workers as their colleagues or co-workers, but as slaves. As their servants However, Mishu adds, things have changed. Not big changes. Tiny ones. (Sromik Awaz, 12 January 2008).
She goes on, I have seen many marriages break up. The factories had this outrageous attendance card system. It said, work hours are from 7 am to 5 pm. But, in practice, women worked till midnight. Or, till one in the morning. Why or how it is allowed to happen, I do not know, said Mishu. The 1965 law, the Factory Law says women workers work hours can only be from 7 in the morning to 8 at night. How that can be so blissfully violated in the case of garment factory workers, I do not know. Of course I understand, if there is a shipment yes, but surely there aren’t shipments the whole year round.
Yes, I was talking about work hours, said Mishu, when girls returned home late, of course, they would be returning from work but since the attendance card said work hours were from 7 to 5, husbands would be suspicious. I know of husbands who would beat their wives, who would drag her by the hair, yell abuses, “Where have you been, you whore?” And also, in our country, it is not safe for women to be out so late at night. Rapes, gang rapes, these happen. They still do. Inside the factory too, there is a lot of sexual harassment. There are other problems, there are no colonies close to the factories where the girls can live. They come to Dhaka city in search of work, leaving behind their families in villages, in townships. They live here in a mess, many to a room, or they take in a sub-let room. They can pay the rent, or the local shopkeeper for food items, rice, salt, oil, on getting their wages. If they can’t pay, they are harassed by the landlord, or by the shopkeeper. I know of girls who have been turned out of their rooms by the landlord, sometimes in the middle of the night. Because they could not pay their rent. I have seen girls in Adabor (Mohammodpur), I have seen them take refuge in front of Shaymoli cinema hall, in the verandas of local mosques, and yes, even beneath a tree. And, as you know, girls working in garment factories are very young, as young as 16. The oldest girls are in their early to mid-twenties.
Mishu said, the Emergency has affected the garment workers movement adversely. The May 2006 movement arose over piece rate payments. Payments were very low at the Apex factory. Workers protested, the police opened fire. Shohag, a young worker, was killed. The movement spread like wildfire, in Gazipur and beyond. It spread to Savar, to Ashulia. It erupted later again, in October. We achieved some, said Mishu, our demand for minimum wages, for setting up of a wage board. We also lost. The wage board would include representatives from both owners and workers. But both sets of representatives were to be selected by the owners! Eleven organisations had demanded a minimum wage of three thousand taka. But we were betrayed. Minimum wage was fixed at 1,162.50. But even that is not paid. Of course, we haven’t given up our demand for a minimum wage of three thousand taka. It is ridiculous to expect that workers can live, they can reproduce their labour power, at such low income levels.
The Emergency has adversely affected the garment workers movement. It has made things much worse. Before, because of one movement after the other, there was some hope. The factory owners had nearly agreed to trade unions. I don’t know what the ILO (International Labour Organisation) office is doing sitting here in Dhaka, I am sure they know that trade union activities are banned. That workers do not have basic democratic rights. As a result of the Emergency, we cannot put any pressure on the owners to follow the 2006 tripartite agreement. We cannot pressurise the government either. The owners are benefiting from the Emergency. They are sacking workers, they are implicating both workers and leaders in false cases. There are 19 such false cases against me in Gazipur, and 7 in Ashulia. Working people are increasingly getting very angry. Spontaneous movements keep bursting out in different factories. Whenever any protest takes place, you get to hear another round of conspiracy theories. Either the workers are conspiring. Or their leaders are conspiring. Or, it is an international conspiracy. Issues of social justice in the sector that owns three-quarters of the nation’s foreign exchange earnings, are sidelined.
As far as garment workers are concerned, this government is no different from other governments, said Mishu. It looks upon us as the enemy, as conspirators. It instructs the police to fire bullets at us. Things far worse happen to us. The Emergency has taken away our rights. It has increased the power of the owners over the workers. Our movement is part of the larger movement for democracy, not the state-sponsored one, but the people’s one. The real one. And of course, we wish to link up to other movements that oppress people.
Postscript: A hundred years ago, Sultana had a dream. The lion is bigger and stronger than a man. Just like men who are [generally] bigger and stronger than women. One can invent similar parallels. Like factory owners, who are richer than workers, and have state backing unlike workers. Other parallels also come to mind.
But in Sultana’s Dream there is a twist. Those who are stronger, and more powerful eventually lose. They are outwitted by their captives, who dreamt of freedom and emancipation.
First published in New Age 8th March 2008