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     Volume 7 Issue 27 | July 4, 2008 |

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Breaking Barriers in Style

Elita Karim
Thanks to the recent labour and compliance laws, many of the factory managements are changing their regulations, whereupon the conditions of the labourers are improving.

When 15-year-old Marufa discovers that her parents are about to stop her studies and arrange her marriage to a stranger, she panics and looks for a way out. "I wanted to study further, like all children, and did not want to get married," says Marufa Begum in the 'Tales of Freedom', a documentary directed by Mirza Hassan. At one point, young Marufa sneaks out of her village home and gets on a launch to reach Dhaka. "I had met other girls who worked in garment factories," she says. "After talking to them I felt encouraged and left my home and family behind for a better life."

The one-hour-seven-minute-long story revolves around the lives of women and young girls working in the RMG sector in Bangladesh. Over the last decade or so, the number of female workers in the garment sector has increased manifold. There was a time when horror stories about garment workers would flood the newspapers -- workers burning to death inside factories because the front gates had been locked, female garment workers being harassed and raped by their fellow male workers or even their superiors and many more such stories. Cutting a helpless and sorry figure, the garment workers, especially the female workers were practically trying to survive inside a danger zone. In fact, people would compare being a female garment worker to being the same as illegal sex workers -- a group of 'night birds', working underground, and carrying out illegal activities inside these factories or elsewhere. On their way home every evening, the street-side miscreants and troublemakers would jeer at these female workers. In a nutshell, being a female worker in the RMG sector in the country was, and probably still is, not such a respectable life.

Thanks to the recent labour and compliance laws however, many of the factory managements are changing their regulations, whereupon the working conditions of the labourers are improving. However, for female workers, change for the better seems to come at snail's pace. Marufa and a hundred others like her are now breaking away from the patriarchal society and trying to earn a living by working in this sector. Almost immediately after running away from home, Marufa secretly transferred her 12-year-old sister, Nasrin, to Dhaka city from her village home as well. When asked by Hassan as to why she did so, Marufa replies that she did not want her father to marry her sister off at a young age as well. "For him, out of his four daughters, he would consider the both of us dead," says Marufa, smiling sadly at the camera. Their mother was the only one who knew about their whereabouts. Their parents lied to their neighbours about their daughters and said that they were living with their elder sister and her husband in Dhaka city. Even then, the neighbours and the local elders would not stop talking and discussing the issue for months. What could be worse and more shameful than two young girls from their very own village running away to become garment workers?

On their way home every evening, street-side miscreants and troublemakers jeer at female garments workers.

Hassan's documentary, however, focuses on how the whole scenario is changing, though rather slowly. His camera lets the viewers have a peek into the lives of these female workers, especially what they do after work and on weekends. Interestingly, Hassan and his cameraperson showcase the girls' desires to be glamorous by following the fashion and styles of celebrities. Even though many of the female workers turned towards the RMG sector to earn a living and help their poverty-stricken families in the village, there are some young girls from middle-class families who opt to work in factories to gain financial independence and pay for their own education. Young Sadia, a worker at a garment's factory, had finished her Higher Secondary Examinations, during the time the documentary was being filmed, and was applying for an Honours programme at one of the local colleges. "I wish to continue with my studies for as long as possible," she says. With a passion for dressing up, keeping herself up-to-date with the fashion and make-up of celebrities, this bubbly young girl also happens to be a voracious reader. "I spend money on my clothes, cosmetics, education and also the books that I like to read," she says. Moreover, she has also spent a part of her salary to help her mother buy a modest sofa set for their sitting room, chairs and shelves as well as other furniture.

Yet another interesting scene was an animated conversation between Hassan and a local tailor who takes plenty of orders from female garments workers. "Female garment workers buy the loose three piece sets which tend to be of a low quality fabric and cost less as well," says the tailor. "However, they demand very good stitching quality and the latest designs. And because they deal with stitches and clothes themselves, they have a very clear idea of the designs that they want from us. I personally have a soft corner for these women who work in the RMG sector. They work very hard and spend a little to look and feel good. We give them a 20 percent discount whenever they come to us."

In another scene, a group of teenage female workers were shown going to the local studio on an off day, to take photographs. "I get at least 15-20 female garment workers on weekends," says the photographer at the studio. "Most of them like to pose against beautiful sceneries and photos of famous cinema actresses Poppy and Shabnoor. All they want is to look good and probably a little glamorous in their own way. A while ago I had taken 66 photographs of a female garment worker, but she did not have the money to pay me. She said that she would pay me soon and pick up her photographs. It has been at least two months now. Every two days, she comes in to look at her photographs, asks me not to delete them and reminds me that she will pay up soon and pick up the photographs."

The documentary, 'Tales of Freedom' is a positive story. It shows the confidence, power and the independence that the women of this country are acquiring and enjoying in their own way, small freedoms they have always been forbidden to, even today.

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