cannot walk alone in the streets because it is not safe. We
cannot work long hours because it will hamper our household
duties. We cannot go abroad to study because what if we go
astray? We cannot think our own thoughts, speak our minds
or even breathe as freely as we would want to. For every step
we take forward, we must go back a few steps more. It is not
just physical immobility that constricts women's freedom but
social prejudice and parochial state mechanisms that ensure
that women go only so far, whether it is in terms of education,
profession or merely as individuals with identities of their
own. Social constraints are so strong that they even manage
to make women believe that they are not entitled to freedoms
equal to their male counterparts. Thus they give in to the
conspiracy of setting limits to their freedom.
Mehreen Amin, Kajalie Shehreen Islam
Srabonti Narmeen Ali and Elita Karim
poor women have the least freedom in terms of how they will
lead their lives, women from more privileged backgrounds,
too, constantly run against blank walls at crucial points
in their lives. Freedom is curtailed by depriving women of
education or the ability to earn. So is there a way out? And
what really is 'freedom' for a woman?
me, freedom means to do as I like without being made to feel
guilty," says Shakila, a 29-year-old woman who has lived
with double standards all her life. Although she went to school
in the UK, coming from a wealthy but conservative family,
she lead a very different life from her brother. She was made
to go to an all-girls school and was not allowed to go out
unchaperoned. Her father eventually brought her back to Bangladesh
while her brother stayed on to complete his education and
later pursued a career. In Dhaka she was not allowed to go
back to school and had to take her O' and A'levels privately.
"I was not allowed to go anywhere. If I got crank calls
I would be severely reprimanded as if it was my fault,"
like so many young women, Shakila had to get married, after
which she found herself in yet another prison. Her husband's
job took up most of his time and every night he would come
home at 1 or 2 in the morning. "I had no life at all.
My mother-in-law would frown every time I went out, and when
I wanted to start a part-time job my husband just said no.
I fought for a while but then backed off as I was too tired
of the confrontations."
had to do it all over again, she says, she would definitely
have completed her education and taken up some profession.
"Women must educate themselves and be financially independent
before they commit to anybody. This will give them the grounds
to fight for their rights after marriage."
her situation has not changed much -- she still is discouraged
to work -- she is a much stronger woman because she has managed
to overcome her feeling of helplessness. "I read a lot
and this has kept me sane. I no longer try to please everyone
at the cost of my peace of mind."
Haque, CEO of her own company, Andes, and an established fashion
designer, freedom means "to be myself just the way I
religion always talks about 'women's freedom'," says
Aneela. "But our present religious practice has a negative
impact on women's freedom. Religious fanaticism has placed
major constraints on women's freedom. Societal norms are based
on such fanaticism so girl children grow up under different
rules than boys."
I want to go somewhere far with my friends," says 24-year-old
Aditi, a university student, "I need to do a lot of convincing
for my parents to give me permission. Even if I want to go
on a long drive, I will have to take someone with me."
brother, says Aditi, has it much easier, and can almost always
get his way with their parents. "When I wanted to get
a motorbike, my father wouldn't let me, because he didn't
like it. But my brother managed to get his way."
funny," she says, "how, as he grew older, he just
assumed his right to the front seat of the car, something
I never did or could."
wants to go abroad to pursue her higher studies, but her parents
want her to get married first. "They're looking for suitors
living in the countries I want to go to," she says.
parents are wonderful," says Aditi, "and they take
great care of us, but when it comes to daughters, somehow,
it's as if they feel insecure for they could easily lose their
respect in society because of us. It's like the duck and chicken.
Men are like ducks -- whatever they do, when they come out
of the water, they're dry. Women are like chickens; when they
come out of the water, they're completely drenched."
her brother will most probably go abroad for higher studies
once he completes his HSC, and look after the family business
when he returns, Aditi's own future remains uncertain. She
too wants to go abroad, perhaps do a Ph.D.
will that be of any use here?" she asks. Even if she
comes back, what will her life be like, she wonders. Will
she live alone with her husband or move in with her in-laws?
The decision will not be up to her.
a society where a woman's ultimate goal is seen to be finding
a husband and raise a family (hopefully more sons than daughters)
and with her own biological clock ticking away, marriage is
inevitable. For most women, marriage significantly places
limits on her freedom, whether it is freedom to go out of
the house or to earn her own income. But is marriage an absolute
I don't think that either being married or having children
are an absolute necessity for happiness," says Zara,
a happy single at 34 who works for a human rights organisation.
"Not everybody is cut out to be a parent, as is indicated
by the number of children who grow up as difficult or traumatised
adults because of bad parenting."
those who like children, but may not feel a biological urge
to have a child, I am sick and tired of hearing them described
as 'unnatural', particularly if they are women. There are
many unwanted children in the world, and I think more people
should consider adoption."
women in our country are raised as weak and dependent,"
says Aneela Haque, "for such women, marriage is a necessity.
Women with education, inner strength and determination can
choose to be independent and single. It doesn't have to be
back on her life of 50 years, Parvin is more or less satisfied.
Though she was under certain restrictions while living with
her parents, during her married life, she has been relatively
free. "I worked. I went out. I pretty much did as I wished,"
she says. "But then, I didn't really have to work nights
or stay out late. Perhaps then there might have been problems."
or woman is almost always dependent on a man in some form
-- whether father, brother, husband or son. And her situation
always depends on her having or not having such a man in her
life. Many girls' futures become uncertain if their fathers
pass away. They are pressured to get married earlier to reduce
the burdens of the mother and other family members. Families
with many daughters also feel the need to marry them off early,
especially if the father is, say, old and approaching retirement.
got married young and, until then, never quite thought about
doing anything other than what her parents wanted.
didn't mind getting married," she says, "but I didn't
realise that I would have to quit studying. I moved abroad
with my husband and couldn't finish my Bachelors until I came
back to Bangladesh some years later."
never really felt confident enough to work," says Naila.
"Maybe if I had economic freedom, I would have felt more
independent. Or perhaps if I lived in another country. For,
in many countries, housewives are considered equal to working
women and their contribution to the family and household is
recognised as work, unlike in our country."
years down the road, Tinni's life is not very different from
that of Parvin's and Naila's. While living with her parents,
she had her freedom, except for being allowed to go on class
picnics and trips with friends. But after her father died,
she was forced to marry her cousin.
one can say no to anything my uncle (her mother's eldest brother)
says," says Tinni, now 23. So, when he wanted me to marry
his son, my mother couldn't refuse, and I had to do it --
against my will."
into her marriage, while in her third year of university,
Tinni had a baby daughter. Having a child has obviously brought
on more responsibilities. "I might have to skip classes
to look after my child."
am obviously not as free as my husband," she says. "He
does as he pleases, goes out on business or for whatever reason,
whether I want him to or not. I'm obviously not allowed to
do that. Wherever I go, it's with my husband."
women, the dream of marriage is not one that coincides with
reality. The acquisition of gold zari-threaded saris
and heavy sets of jewellery, the smell of uptan on
the day of the holud, the anticipation of starting
a new life with that new someone, the concept of having and
being a family unit -- all of this falls short when the more
practical face of marriage rears its ugly head. Responsibilities
come into play and all of a sudden the decision-making process
does not involve only one person, but rather two.
is an institution which both the man and the woman have to
adapt to and compromise in. There are certain things that
singledom awards that married life does not allow. But the
question is ,how much of that adapting and compromising affects
a person's personal and professional growth?
feel that they have had to compromise on their professional
lives and their careers after marriage.
was a 22-year-old who had graduated from a reputed private
university in Dhaka and holds a degree in English Linguistics.
She finally got married to her dream man, a young executive
she had been going out with for some time. She was planning
on applying for her Master's degree in the USA, train under
a good linguist, work towards a Ph.D. and then return to work
in Dhaka. Within a year, Shiuli gave birth to a baby boy.
She decided to forgo going abroad and opted for a Master's
degree in linguistics from the same private university from
which she had done her undergraduate studies in Dhaka. She
was about to register for the semester, when suddenly her
two-month-old son got ill and she had to give up her dream
of doing her Master's altogether.
almost 25 years of age, Shiuli works at a nearby school as
a Class 4 social studies teacher. She looks upon her dreams
of being a university professor as a far away thought and
sometimes dares to ask herself as to why she sacrificed her
ambitions to fulfil her duties as a wife and mother, only
because she is a woman.
an age where women are encouraged to have a mind of their
own and think of a future for themselves, their dreams usually
stop with the thought of marriage. Over the centuries, the
birth of girls has always been related to marriage, either
positively or negatively. Even today, society seems to judge
a woman by her marital status, no matter how successful she
is in her career.
Farzana, an architecture major, is working part-time at a
foreign company in Dhaka while pursuing full-time undergraduate
studies. She dreams of having her own architectural firm in
Dhaka one day, and plans to work on a Master's degree as soon
as she gets done with her undergraduate studies. However,
she is also getting married to a man her parents matched for
her, within a year's time. "I have to get married. There's
no question about that," says Farzana. "Even though
I would like to work towards my own firm, I would never say
no to a good match. Society would never shun me if I were
both married and working."
society, women often suffer from the stigma that the recipe
for being a successful career-woman involves being married.
However, on the flip side of the coin, many women feel that
being married holds them back, or rather, puts more pressure
on them, thereby stunting their growth professionally.
old Rahima worked at an NGO as a programme coordinator. She
often had to work long hours. When she got married, she found
that this created a problem in her married life.
husband was very insecure because I had a very time-consuming
job," says Rahima. "It has only been a year since
we were married, but I have already quit my job. I had to.
Before we were married he was so supportive and admiring about
my job but now he says that a woman's place is to stay at
home and I have no choice but to listen to what he says."
women really not have a choice? Twenty-four-year-old Samira
recently got married to a doctor residing in the USA. Samira
had to let go of a full-time job in the Human Resource Department
of a very popular company in Dhaka, just so she could get
married to a man she never knew and live in another country.
had to get married because I am not getting any younger, you
know," says Samira. "It's hard to get a man if you
reach the age of 25, and that's when you become a burden to
think women allow their careers and lifestyles to be influenced
by men and marriage," says Tupa, well-known model and
choreographer, Binodon. "Instead of looking
at marriage as a social institution, women should see it as
something that we want to do. No one can put limitations on
you unless you let them. Men shouldn't be in a position where
they can tell you how to live your life. It will be hard for
women to stand up for themselves and say no but they have
to at some point because if they don't, they will lose their
identities. We are not children so we need to stop giving
in to social pressures. Women should stop seeing themselves
as victims because that is the worst thing that they can do
to themselves. You're a person, a human being, and you have
a choice to say no when you want to and say yes when you want
has been married for over 25 years. She has three grown-up
children and has been working in the development sector for
almost 15 years. For her, economic stability and the power
to be financially independent are key.
feel that there are two sides. Marriage provides social mobility
to women in the sense that they can be less vigilant about
following social norms basically because our society looks
at them less critically. But this mobility doesn't necessarily
translate into freedom unless there are certain economic,
environmental and personal factors that go with it. One important
thing is having economic freedom and one's own source of income
and the ability to have the psychological strength to be economically
independent. The moment a woman is economically dependant
on a man, be it her father or husband, it obligates her to
act in a certain way, and she feels that she has to repay
her so-called debt."
being financially independent does not always give you the
clout that it should. Sayeeda and Sultana have both found
that, after marriage, despite being financially independent
and able to stand up for themselves and what they think is
right, they have to deal with a lot of pressure from either
their husbands or their in-laws to change their lifestyles
and their ways.
we got married, my husband used to love that I was so independent,"
says 26-year-old Sayeeda. "He loved that I had a set
career path and was well-educated, had my own life, my own
friends. After we got married, he became possessive, made
demands, such as asking me to dress more conservatively, being
more careful about what I did in public. He began to resent
my job and always belittled me in public when I engaged in
intellectual conversations. It's like he automatically became
someone else when we got married. All his ideals and beliefs
changed and he expected me to change too."
mother-in-law does not like the fact that I work," says
24-year-old Sultana. "Every time I leave in the morning
for work, she makes a face. She tells my husband that she
would rather I stay home and help around the house. At night
my husband and I fight about it. He wants me to quit my job
to bring peace within his family, but I refuse to do so. I
have worked too hard to get where I am and I'm not giving
that up, but sometimes I feel the pressure so strongly that
I do want to give up, just out of sheer exhaustion."
all about a man's security level," explains Maliha. "Most
men -- especially in our society -- are scared that their
wives will become more competent and successful. Men by nature
are very vain and egotistical and it is hard for them to accept
that their wives are more successful, or even successful to
a certain point, so they start making boundaries and barriers
to get in the way of a woman's success in her career. They
get a kick out of the feeling and knowledge that they are
the sole providers and protectors of the women."
unfortunately, the barriers are defined by a woman's family,
rather than her husband or his family, and marriage is then
seen as a way out, as is the case with 21-year-old Rima.
I got married, I was allowed to do all the things I was never
allowed to do when I was living with my parents," she
says. "I was allowed to further my studies, work full-time
in a multinational company, wear whatever I want and go out
without having to answer to anyone. It was like marriage was
my ticket to freedom."
however, women see marriage as that "ticket to freedom"
and are cheated out of it regardless.
Tamanna, "I wanted to study medicine and become a doctor.
When I got married, my husband and I moved abroad and I started
to apply to med school. When I finally got accepted, he told
me he would not allow me to attend because med school was
too long a process and how would we be able to start a family
and make a home if I was always studying and in school?"
to Tupa, if the person you are to spend the rest of your life
with cannot respect your needs, then it may be time to reconsider.
"If the man in your life doesn't get it even after you
sit down and talk to him and take your stand -- and the first
few times it will be difficult -- but even if he doesn't get
it after a while, then maybe he is not the right person for
you, and you should have the strength to walk away for your
is it so easy to walk away? Faustina Pereira, an advocate
of Bangladesh Supreme Court and a director of Ain O Shalish
Kendra, says that 'freedom' for a woman immediately translates
to the ability to access the various structures and institutes
of the State. This would encompass every facet of socio-legal
interaction - from daily interactions in social and family
life to participating in the highest level of State such as
the Parliament. Pereira says that it is a vital mistake to
see family life as something separate from State function.
the legal system? How does it constrain women's freedom? The
legal system we have inherited, says Faustina, is not elastic
enough to yield necessary benefits to women in particular
and men and women in general because it is steeped in a male
perspective, and that too the male perspective of a particular
class. "We now have an all-women police cell in Mirpur;
but we must ask what necessitated such a cell?" asks
Pereira. It shows that the whole system left by itself, starting
from filing a GD to the investigation to the trial, cannot
adequately address women's needs, thus necessitating such
"special" measures for women.
says that the main problem is that the perspective from which
our laws have been legislated and implemented, have never
taken women to be the subject of law. "The male identity
has always been the subject of law and written according to
male needs," says Pereira, a human rights activist. "Most
of the procedural laws have been written by a handful of British,
white, upper middle-class men who had their own perspectives
and whose perspectives found their way into the law."
Women on their own rights were never made the subject of the
law. The good news is that some laws are changing with the
times, says Pereira. This is especially true for family laws
regarding custody or payment of maintenance and dower - major
factors that have kept many women in abusive or troubled marriages.
When it is a question of giving up the children in order to
be free from an unhappy marriage, women chose to stay just
to keep the children. "What we must convince women,"
says Pereira, "is that they are not as vulnerable or
helpless as they are made to think." She explains that,
under the present custody laws, the court predominantly looks
at what is in the best interest of the child and usually for
infants and minor children, it is presumed that the mother,
unless she is proven to be unfit, is the better custodian
of a child in whose custody a child's welfare is ensured.
She points out to judgements and precedents where it has been
shown that religious laws on father's prerogative over a child
is not immutable, and those laws will not influence the judicial
mind if the court believes that the child will be better off
with the mother.
to Pereira, more and more middle-class and lower middle-class
women have taken advantage of this law and have gained custody
of their children. The legal guardianship of a child, however,
still lies with the father, but, Pereira says that while we
continue our advocacy to fight for mother's guardianship rights,
we should build upon the strengths of mother's custodianship
rights. As far as providing maintenance for the children is
concerned, there is no way that a father can evade his responsibility.
Muslim law in particular pays attention to the fact that the
father is obligated to pay the maintenance of his children
and the children's mother, even if she is divorced from him,
has the right to demand this on their behalf.
even when there are no children, women continue to stay in
abusive marriages because they feel they have nowhere to go.
If they do not have the skills or education needed to get
a decent job, this financial insecurity will be the biggest
reason to endure a bad marriage. In some cases, a prenuptial
agreement that the husband will provide financial maintenance
in the case of divorce, gives women some security, although
it is usually resisted at the time of the marriage. Women
can claim past maintenance from her husband after divorce
but not future maintenance.
is 'freedom' an untenable dream? There is no obvious answer
and a lot depends on the attitude of women themselves.
think that real freedom is being able to make decisions about
your own life based on reasons and feelings that you think
are valid," says Zara. " It's perfectly normal to
ask for advice or opinions from people whom you respect, but
your final decision should be your own. Above all, you should
be able to live your own life, provided you aren't deliberately
hurting anyone, in the way that you want to, without everyone
around you expressing an opinion about what you should do.
One of the worst things in our society is the way that people
feel that they have the right to pass judgement on others.
They not only offer unsolicited opinions, they force them
on you. And that is one of the hardest things about being
a woman in our society - you are always subjected to the opinions
of others, and made to feel bad simply because you don't fulfil
whatever stereotypes they carry about how women should behave."
themselves with education, skills and the ability to support
themselves, along with the determination to survive with dignity,
they may not be guaranteed freedom. But at least they will
give them a good chance to aspire for it.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005