Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home   |   Volume 7, Issue 10, Tuesday, March 06, 2012




Of equal opportunities

Mariam Karim and Jesmin Akhtar are both in their 50s. Mariam is a retired businesswoman while Jesmin is a full-time homemaker. They both remember their youth and how discrimination had been an extensive part of it.

"My mother used to keep the best pieces of the chicken for the boys and would not let me go to the movies with my own male cousins," says Jesmine, “I always saw how she had to ask for everything she wanted from my father who often denied her the simplest desires because he wasn't in a 'giving' mood."


"I remember the anguish I felt at many moments wishing I was born as a male instead," Mariam states, "Then when I started working, I was greatly respected by the society which boosted my own confidence. This was 25 years back and even then when the concept of women working was an issue, I rarely found my male subordinates unwilling to obey me."

Mariam realizes that she is a special case. "Women's rights activists have eased our situation drastically but I feel that the whole movement has been derailed. I have been a working woman for the greater part of my life so I know the satisfaction of making your own career, building something from scratch. But the thing I loved building the most in my life are my children."

“I am afraid that the movement in its determination to establish equal rights has made child rearing a pillow passing game,” Jesmin adds, “In search of equality if a woman is neglecting her children it is she herself who is losing out on a great pleasure.” Thus, to this generation women's rights is “to be educated at par with men, to work, to earn but first to be a proper mother.”

Next we talk to Nazia Farzin and Rizwana Sabreen, both in their late 30s, one a homemaker and the other a dentist.

“Women's rights is the right of a women to be respected for whatever way she chooses to live,” declared Nazia. “Whether she wants to be a career woman or a homemaker or leave a blooming career to take care of her children, she should be allowed to make her own choice.”

“I grew up in times of change,” says Rizwana. “In our teens we were still in the old mindset and could not wear western clothes or be seen with male friends but by the time we graduated from university things had drastically altered. But the situation seems to have gone from one extreme to the other. I feel that today educated women who choose to stay at home are scorned just as much as women choosing to build a career were scorned over 40 years back. This sort of pressure is once again labeling women, telling them they are not good enough.”

Nazia also has an alternate solution. “I think this fight will never end if we do not bring it to the family level. We have to address the issue at its core by preaching to the young, developing a next generation where the idea of inequality in itself is archaic.”

Finally we talk to Noorie Safa, a 23-year-old student at University of Dhaka studying Women and Gender Studies.


“Thankfully, while growing up I never faced much discrimination in my family but I have felt its presence nonetheless,” She says. “I think the movement has achieved its many goals of ensuring education and work for women which are the foundations to empower women. Now it's necessary to change the mindset of the people.”

“To me women's rights would be to be 'thought' of as an equal as well as being 'treated' as an equal. The day people stop assuming that something is wrong with a divorced women or making vulgar advances at a single woman past her marriage age is the day we will know that women's proper rights as an equal has been acknowledged.”

Noorie Safa also says that a lot is left to be done in the legal arena. “Property rights and the legal linguistics are overtly or subtlely limiting women's capabilities and are perhaps the final barriers which need to be lifted to allow women greater economic, political and social respect.

There are some major areas of criticism in this movement and we asked our expert and interviewees to address these. The first is the controversy of affirmative action. Is providing advantage to women in the professional arena unfair?

Nazia says, “This system is important right now in our society because we haven't received the same upbringing as our male counterparts. In the next generation, if we can fix this problem, we can lift such quota systems and allow women to take over the world on her own accord.”

Finally we ask if the saying, women are women's greatest enemy, stands true. Rizwana says that her mother has often seemed discouraging to her having a career as a dentist but she understood how it was her mother's way of protecting her from the disappointments that social attitudes might expose her to. A century of demands seem to have provided women with many open doors. Each generation has interpreted the movement in accordance with the needs of their time. All of our interviewees acknowledge the contributions of the movement, how it has brought them the right to say 'no', the right to say anything for that matter. One thing, however, seems evident. The movement will live on for many more years changing itself to address the needs of each generation to follow.

By Raisaa Tashnova


In conversation with Maheen Sultan

Maheen Sultan is the Coordinator of the Research Programme on Pathways of Women's Empowerment, South Asia Hub which is part of BRAC Development Institute at BRAC University.

Q. How was the Women Rights movement initiated?
A. The women's rights movement is not an imported concept as many believe. Yes, it may have been initiated by westerners but not in the way popularly thought of.

The sub-continent's history contains some highly empowered women, such as Nawab Faizunnessa Chowdhurani of Comilla, Rani Lakshmibai (Jhansi Ki Rani) and such, but these were the exceptions rather than the norm. During the British rule, the sub-continent underwent a renaissance of thought as the British questioned their religion and society. People were forced to rethink their social structures and religious values and this started the gradual change which led to what we now know as the women's rights movement in the 20th century.

Dramatic reforms took place even in that era. For example, the bride-burning practice was much more of a rarity, contrary to what the British publicised, and was corrected from within the society rather than through British legal reforms. More interestingly, from that era till now, it is the less privileged part of society where change has occurred faster in comparison to the higher classes. Thus, the women of the lower classes of society have always enjoyed more freedom.

The movement has indeed come far. The simplest example is the widespread acceptance of 'love' marriages in all levels of society. This shows that women have been allowed the right to say 'no'. However, the pressure of marriage is still higher in the upper classes today, once again showing how economic factors have forced the lower classes to adapt to changing times.

Q. The notion of equal rights means different things to different people. What practices embody equal rights to you?
A. The goal of the movement is of course equal rights but this needs further clarification. By equal rights the movement does not promote absolute equality. Women's rights mean the right to be different and be respected for that difference. Women are not equal to men, but that does not mean they are weaker or any less valuable. Equal rights mean to give equal opportunities with respect to the differences between the two genders.

Q. In today's society a working woman is has multiple responsibilities including work, child rearing and running a household. What is the movement doing to ease this situation?
A. Women as an integral part of the workforce is now more a part of the status quo but household work and child rearing is still a bone of contention in this debate. It has been seen that men are more willing to help out in the house by raising their children rather than contributing to household cooking, cleaning, etc. The movement has gradually developed a class of 'feminist men' who have brought into effect the relatively new phenomenon of 'paternity leave'. But even today men have more leisure hours than a working woman.

Women often think that men cannot be good child-rearers, which is utterly incorrect. Today's working women are often besieged by the guilt of spending less time with their children, often leaving their jobs and careers to do so. Thus it is sad that legally they have no rights over these very children. So the movement is inspiring women to let go of the pride of being a good homemaker and instead let the fathers take charge and become accustomed to their duties, hence introducing proper division of labour in the household.

Q. Some of our interviewees have stated how educated, stay-at-home wives are nowadays looked down upon by the endorsers of this movement whereas that too is a choice women should be allowed to make. How does the movement address this issue?
A. Research has shown how husbands in lower income parts of society respect wives with jobs and it is these husbands who are more willing to change their attitudes. Thus having a job is fundamental to gaining respect from men; the financial freedom buys you the respect. Respect for stay-at-home wives has yet not been obtained or even addressed by the movement. I think such respect will be ensured once women are thought of as equals in the wider society, so one will follow the success of the other.

Q. How successful has the movement been so far, more specifically, has equality been achieved?
A. Not to the level necessary. Women are being given access to jobs now but once in, they are not allowed to climb as high by society and family. Discouraging girls to study science in high school, not letting them take promotions which post them elsewhere are some of the subtle discriminations still in existence. And of course there is domestic violence, which is a direct indicator of the perceived power differences within a family.

A great push has come not from the movement but from the government militarisation of women. This has made women aware of the greater respect they are entitled to.

There are many other indicators which show a drastically improved situation, such as higher women literacy rates, lower dowry related incidences, greater numbers of women commuters and such but discrimination is merely suppressed today rather than being eliminated all together.

Q. Is the movement anti-religion?
A. Religion provides more rights than we realise. Since society has been allowed to interpret religion and that society is patriarchal, religion has been and still is used as a justification for discrimination. Today groups of women are sitting together in all social classes to read and interpret the religious rules by themselves and that is giving rise to a much more confident, affirmative yet religious group of women.

Q. Women are women's greatest enemies. How true is this statement?
A. Often mothers, mothers-in-laws and other female family members act as the greatest barrier to a young woman gaining confidence. We shouldn't however label them as villains but rather try to see that these women might have had dreams shattered themselves and hence are only trying to protect their wards from the cruelty of reality (as they see it). On the other hand these female family members can channel their experience positively by living their dreams through their female wards. It is however wise for young women to draw inspiration from a group of likeminded female friends, rather than be subdued because of the incomplete dreams of her parents.

By Raisaa Tashnova


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