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     Volume 8 Issue 89 | October 9, 2009 |

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Shabnam Nadiya

The bank located at Dhanmondi 27 isn't on any of my regular routes, nor do I do my banking there; but I do go by it occasionally. A few days ago I noticed a billboard they had within the bank compound. I saw it for a few seconds as my rickshaw zipped along, but it was enough to annoy me for the rest of the day. I don't know whether it's been up there for a while, or whether it's a new one. But here's what the billboard was: the horizontal rectangle was split into three panels with three pictures. Beneath each panel was written in large letters: Accomplishment.

So what did these images of “accomplishment” comprise? The first slat was a fairly pretty young woman, glittery tiara on head, heavily made-up face, French manicured fingers pressed to lips half open in surprise and artfully pretty tears of joy and acceptance glinting in her eyes, congratulatory flowers clasped to her breast; the second one was that defining photo of the moon landing -- we've all seen it, a human figure clad in a spacesuit, astride the grey lunar barrenness; the third picture was of young hands (successfully) tying a shoelace into a neat bow.

Right. So for men, accomplishment is reaching the moon. For women, it's winning a contest which pits women against each other on the basis of looks. While men strive to reach the stars, women are busy putting on makeup.

For those who would argue that the astronaut photo could be either male or female, since the space suit makes it impossible to determine sex/gender: as far as I could tell, the bank/ad firm had used the Armstrong landing photo, not a mockup. Even if it is a reconstruct, it reconstructed a particular photo, an image that is almost universally associated with striving and achievement. An image, also, that represents to a large extent a male domain, just as that image of the tearful woman in the tiara is firmly associated with a whole culture that objectifies women, that perceives and defines women on the basis of their appearance alone.

The positioning of the photos is also interesting. The central image is the moon landing as it deserves to be. Peripheral to it are the woman and the child. So, we have man conquering the moon, an image of triumph beyond measure; women and children are also there, their achievements of winning beauty pageants and tying shoelaces on a similar plane to each other. That certainly puts me where I belong, shows us where we are positioned in the broader and grander scheme of humanity.

I've noted other billboards that reflect the “boxed in” attitudes about women: there's another bank billboard advertising business loans. In two separate billboards for the same set of credit programmes, the men are depicted in diverse environments -- hard-hatted, holding blueprints with construction going on in the background, at a desk talking on the phone, standing with a plastic folder and looking busy beside a desk. The women in both billboards are pictured smiling towards the camera, the background that of a clothing retail store. It's true that a significant percentage of small-scale women entrepreneurs are in the boutique/ tailoring business. But it's not the only type of business that women enter or operate. The proportion of women entrepreneurs versus men are also the same in these billboards - these spaces are split into three separate panels, two for men, one allotted to women.

Then there is the ad of a bank's credit programme's taking over a whole over bridge. On one side you see a man in front of a blackboard, another man doing something similarly “professional” looking. The sole woman on that side is standing beside her “son” - the young man is wearing a graduate's tasseled hat, certificate in one hand with his parents on either side. The other side of the over bridge has more women - three women smiling, a male hand in front of them taking or returning a credit card - clearly, shopping of some sort has been going on. The second picture (proffering consumer loans) shows a young woman posing in front of a line of washing machines. I'm not exactly clear as to what the smiling young boy in front of spurting water (the third image of this set) is supposed to represent or how that relates to those loan programmes.

I won't even begin to talk about the more overtly objectionable billboards on display across the city: a computer manufacturer's billboard of a laptop or a monitor with a sexily positioned pretty young woman with a product-tag around her neck and the tagline running “You're the accessory” (Yes, there's a male version of this ad, but the male model's attire - read proportion of bare skin on display - and stance markedly different from the female one).

This is not an attempt to quantify how women are represented in the media, in advertisements, in billboards or even in billboards put up by lending institutions. This is simply the observation of a Dhaka resident at how prevailing attitudes regarding the place and space of women in the workplace find modes of expression in public spaces.

I don't think that these billboards have been put up in some grand sexist conspiracy to denigrate women. Yet what does show through the design of these (in terms of both content and presentation) are certain notions about women that continue to inhabit our consciousness. I am entirely willing to believe that the men and women who designed and approved these advertisements are not rampant misogynists bent on undermining the (miniscule) gains we have made in terms of gender equality over the decades. What is more probable is that the need to think through the impact of these images was not something they bothered about. While the need to be gender inclusive (perhaps for reasons of political correctness and the favourite buzz term these days of “corporate social responsibility”) has seeped into the decision-making echelons, the exegesis of the messages implicit in these representations is, clearly, not something anyone is spending too much time on.

Whether intended or not, the consequences of the subversions achieved by these (and similar) advertisements are no less damaging. It is the insidious and subtle nature of how these stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes are perpetuated that is, perhaps, more disturbing than other overt displays of mediated constructs of gender (women = decorative, domestic; men = active, achievers).

That women are included at all in these billboards is a small but certain step forward. I do recall the time when women would be portrayed in advertisements almost exclusively in domestic settings - washing clothes, utensils, themselves and their families, cooking and shopping - these were the things they were good for in the eyes of the advertising agencies and the corporations who were their clients.

Those times have changed, true. But, clearly, they haven't changed enough. “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” - isn't it time we took a giant leap for humankind?


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