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     Volume 7 Issue 10 | March 7, 2008 |

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Escaping out of the Mould

Srabonti Narmeen Ali

Although it seems that the concept of gender equality has at least become issues that are considered important for nation building, one has to wonder whether the progress itself is significant, or just superficial. It is often that we consider those very small stepping-stones serving to better the situation of women in Bangladesh to be bigger than they are. This is not to say that we should be unhappy with how far women have come, but only a reminder that we have a long way to go before women are finally (if ever) seen as equal competitors in the ever-lasting battle of the sexes.

In the corporate world in Dhaka more and more women seem to have carved a strong niche for themselves. Women executives are slowly, but surely rising up among their business-suit clad male counterparts. What is interesting is that in many cases, a woman who has -- by her own qualifications -- climbed up the very steep ladder of success, is often subjected to different kinds of criticism. People question her character, subtly disrespect her without insulting her outright and generally scrutinise her every move, waiting for the opportune moment in which they can pounce and discredit all her hard work. To add insult to injury, half the men who are out to ruin this woman's career also attempt to make inappropriate overtures towards her, further humiliating and psychologically belittling the woman in question.

Of course this is completely acceptable behaviour for men, which makes it all the more frustrating. The invisible obstacles that women face every day of their lives are often not obvious, but very strongly ingrained into our social system, making it almost impossible for a woman to live her life as freely as she wishes. In every situation a woman comes across she is expected to fulfil certain roles and shape herself into a certain mould in order to avoid confrontation and criticism. Being different and being a woman anywhere in the world is difficult, but in Bangladesh it is unbearable.

What is even more disturbing is that complete strangers seem to think it is their business to tell a woman how she should live her life. Teamed with the Bangali nature of being intrusive and generally not knowing the meaning of social grace comes the attitude that most people think it is their God-given right to lecture a woman on how she should publicly conduct herself, whether she is wearing something deemed as 'inappropriate,' travelling at night by herself, being in the company of too many men, going out at night, eating too much or too little or even how to do her job. Interestingly enough it is not just men who do this, but also women -- women who are probably themselves so frustrated with the boring roles that they lead that they cannot stand that someone else is trying to step out of that mould.

It is very often that people tend to demonise those women who do manage to break out of this mould. A very quiet and shy woman who has managed to climb the corporate ladder thanks to her intelligence may be misperceived as a vampish, loud-mouthed, or even 'loose' just because she had the audacity to be ambitious and successful in her work.

It may be that the instinctive cringe most Bangalis feel when they come across a strong-willed and successful woman comes from feeling threatened by anything that is foreign to them. It would be more comfortable for them to deal with a cardboard cutout version of a woman, who basks in her submissiveness and hardly says anything out of order. The point is that how many people really are like that at the end of the day? Do we all not have some kind of rebel inside of us -- or rather, a need to break out of the invisible chains that we constantly find ourselves wrapped in? And whether we deviate from the role of what a woman should be -- an idea which is changing day by day -- or we decide to conform to what roles have been played out by the generations and generations before us, should we all, if nothing else, get the so-called luxury of being able to choose?

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