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     Volume 9 Issue 10| March 5, 2010|

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Cover Story

Celebrating 100 Years of International Women's Day

Breaking the Glass Ceiling

The plane, an Airbus A310 with 102 passengers on board, is into its final descent towards

Female employment in male-dominated professions has increased substantially over the past few years.
Dubai International Airport when it is hit by gale force winds. A desert storm whips up the sand below, buffeting the plane and sending the cabin crew scrambling.
The pilot makes a calm unhurried announcement over the PA System. “Ladies and gentlemen. As you will be aware, we are encountering some turbulence as a result of a thunderstorm. Please keep seat belts fastened. The cabin crew will assist you…”
The pilot's hands flash around the cockpit, steadying the aircraft. The throttle goes back, the undercarriage comes down, and five minutes later, the Airbus makes a perfect three-point landing onto the tarmac. As applause rings around the cabin, the pilot smiles at her co-pilot. “Good job!”

Syed Zain Al-mahmood, Elita Karim, Ershad Kamol and Anika Hossain

The pilots will wait for the plane to refuel, before setting off on the second leg of the Dhaka-Dubai-London flight. Just another day in the life of First Officer Tania Reza -- one of only five female pilots employed by Biman Bangladesh Airlines.

High-flying women like Tania are the public face of the new mobility for many Bangladeshi women, who have been striving to break out of traditional roles and are making inroads into areas that have long been dominated by males.

“I don't think a woman with genuine ability would find it hard to establish herself in her chosen profession these days,” says Tania, confidently. “We have achieved that much in this country.”

First Officer Tania Reza

But the road has been a rocky one. Traditional curbs on women's rights have long stymied the efforts of talented women to claim their rightful place in society. Although trailblazers like Begum Rokeya fought hard to establish woman's right to education, a college degree was no guarantee of equality. Cultural and social attitudes towards what constitutes “male” or “female” jobs have remained ingrained and proved a formidable barrier.

Traditionally, engineering, physics, the judiciary, law enforcement and health service administration are considered “male” jobs while teaching, library work and care-giving are considered “female” jobs. Although women's roles in the workplace and home have changed in the past 50 years, thanks in part to the economy and advocacy from many corners, the glass ceiling remained difficult to breach -- until recently.

It has helped that many of the country's top leaders are female. Except for the office of the President, the top five positions of the state are held by women, which include the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, the Deputy Leader of the House, the Foreign Minister and the Home Minister, a Whip of the ruling party, two State Ministers, 19 directly elected MPs, 45 members indirectly elected by the party for the reserved seats in the parliament -- overall a unique example of empowering women at the highest echelons of the state.

As society's attitude towards women changes, a growing number of Bangladeshi women are setting tradition aside to become architects, engineers, firefighters, construction inspectors and even professional drivers. From aviation to law enforcement, female employment in male-dominated professions has increased substantially over the past three decades.

Up until the late 70s, piloting a multi-million Taka, state of the art passenger aircraft was reserved solely for men. That dominance was dented when Kaniz Fatema Roksana was licensed as a commercial pilot in 1977. Roksana's career was tragically cut short on August 4 1984, when the F-27 she was flying crashed near Dhaka, killing all 49 on board.

Following in Roksana's footsteps, several other women have joined the ranks of aviators. But the number remains low -- there are only five female pilots in a total of more than a hundred commercial pilots in Bangladesh.

Professor Hasina Banoo

"I am still amazed that in this day and age there is still so much room for firsts especially for females," says First Officer Tania. "I don't think of myself as a pioneer, but I think it is an important step for progression and although I am not fond of the spotlight I think it is important for people to know that this barrier has been breached. Women need to know what types of opportunities are available to them."

Tania, who hails from Jessore, initially wanted to be a doctor, but decided it would be more fun to fly a jet aircraft.

"I fell in love with the idea of the freedom of flying and after my first flight lesson at age 20, I never looked back," she says. “My uncle was a pilot and I was inspired by him. I decided I could do what he had done.”

Tania believes flying is something for which women are well suited. “I think there are so few female pilots because girls don't know that it's even possible. Look at me, a village girl who has taken to the skies. If I can make it, I'm sure others can!”

In the high pressure world of banking, Laila F Rahim is one of the few female bankers who have made a name for themselves. Laila, who is Deputy Head of Personal Financial Services at HSBC bank, began her journey back in 1997 as an intern.

“HSBC had just come into Bangladesh and I think I was their first or second intern.” she says. “After I completed my courses I joined the bank as a full timer. Back then the bank was also hiring a lot of people as it was new. I thought it would be a good opportunity for me to work full time.”

Though a woman working in a multinational bank or a company is very much a part of the regular scene in Bangladesh today, it is still a little difficult to find women showcasing confidence and the courage to face a society where they are still expected to prioritise the family. “I am still single,” says Laila. “However, I have plenty of women working with me here, both single and married and I can understand their problems.” Laila talks about working towards a proper balance between a career and family, not only for women but for men as well. “Nowadays, both the girls and the boys are given the same education,” reasons Laila. “Even then, why is it that it is still a little more difficult for the girls? I believe it is because of the way they are brought up. Even today, a little girl grows up with the notion that working is optional, while a boy grows up to understand that being the bread-earner is his primary duty. This should be changed. Working towards an independent life for anybody, should not be an option.”

Talking about the women employees in particular, Laila says that HSBC offers several resources to make lives easier, especially for those women who need to take care of a family and at the same time maintain their careers. “For instance, we have the flexi-time,” says Laila. “One can come in early and leave early, or come in late and leave a little later. New mothers, who are breastfeeding their babies, can take a lunch break of 2-2.5 hours, go home, spend some time with their babies and then come back to work. This is all done, so that we don't lose the women employees who have a lot of potential, but tend to leave after a few years because of family pressure or taking care of their babies.”

OC Hosne Ara Ishrat Shermin Rahman

While climbing the ladders of success in the banking sector, Laila says that the organisation has always been supportive, the way they are with those employees who are not high performers and show an inclination towards achieving a goal through hard work. “I have never really had any in-house obstacles with regards to my work,” says Laila. “However, I had some from outside.” Smiling at the memory, Laila relates a story about an aunt who had asked her to leave her strenuous job and marry a suitor who would provide her with a monthly amount double the salary she gets now. “What about my identity and the respect that I earned for myself?” Laila asked her aunt.

One area which has long been a bastion of male dominance is the IT industry. When 23-year-old Saika looks around her computer science lab at Khulna University, the fourth-year student is hard pressed to find another female in the crowd.

"There's definitely not very many women in my programme," says Saika, who is pursuing a combined undergraduate degree in computer hardware and networking. "Quite a few women have already dropped out or changed majors between first and second year. I think it's because of the conventional wisdom that a life in IT is incompatible with family life.”

Industry observers also say one way to address the gender imbalance issue in IT is to stop stereotyping women. "Stereotyping of women in the workplace sets the female gender back when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder. The worst kind of stereotype, however, would have to be women stereotyping themselves," says one analyst.

Dipti Saha has never bothered with stereotypes. Dipti has been working as a hardware engineer for the past eight years. This may be surprising considering that the general consensus in Bangladesh regarding women and technology is that they hardly gel together. However, Dipti Saha dares to deviate from the norm and has been running a computer store called Computer Clinic since she obtained a diploma in computer engineering in 1998 from the Rajshahi Polytechnic Institute. Saha says, as a woman it has not been very difficult for her to get ahead in this field. “I do my job well and my colleagues know it.” Saha says her family, in pursuing her career, has always supported her. She also receives facilities from her employers, which allows her to maintain a balance between her job and home life. “I always have time to look after my children and this is very important to me.” Saha thinks that although hardware engineering has been a male dominated profession, this has gradually been changing. “There are many women joining this field of late and they are all focused and career oriented and can do just as well if not better than male computer engineers.”

Medical science is a discipline where the participation of women has traditionally been encouraged. However, most female practitioners have focused on areas like gynecology and ophthalmology, leaving more “strenuous” specialisations like neurology and cardiology to men.

This should change, says the “First Lady” of Cardiology, Professor Hasina Banoo. Banoo, who has the distinction of being the first female cardiologist in this country, dismisses the notion that disciplines such as cardiology suit men better.

“You just have to want it more,” she says. “At the age when most girls play with dolls, I used to pretend to be a doctor. When I qualified from Chittagong Medical College in 1969, there were no female cardiologists. I went to IPGMR to specialise in gynecology. But one of my male professors encouraged me to become a heart specialist. I took the challenge, and haven't looked back.”

Women are setting aside traditional roles and taking on more visible responsibilities. Photo: Nusrat Jabeen

One field where women have made strong gains is psychology. Ishrat Shermin Rahman is one of 39 clinical psychologists in Bangladesh. She works as a counselor for the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs in their Violence against Women sector, dealing mostly with clients who have suffered from sexual and physical assault. She also runs a private practice and often makes home visits to her clients.

Rahman chose this profession when she realised the serious lack of clinicians in the mental health field in Bangladesh. "This is mostly due to the stigma attached to being mentally ill," she says. Rahman says there are more female than male clinical psychologists. This is because it takes a long time to obtain a degree in clinical psychology and men in this country have to establish a career more quickly than women since they are supposed to be the primary bread winners of the household. Women have different responsibilities and more patience and can therefore take their time and pursue their degree in psychology."

In the macho world of law enforcement, presence of women would be unthinkable 20 years ago. Many women are holding great positions these days in the police. But in most cases these female police officers are appointed for desk work in different branches or providing securities for the VVIPs. Only a few women are doing challenging jobs such as investigations, competing with males. Hosne Ara is one of them. She was the first woman to get appointment as the Officer-In-Charge (OC) of a police station on March 18, 2009. At present she is the OC of Cantonment Police Station, one of the major crime zones under Dhaka Metropolitan Police.

"I joined the police with the intention to help people, since I believe the profession, if someone works with honesty, is the best profession to serve people," says Hosne Ara. "Conducting investigations as a Sub-inspector (SI) in several police stations I worked hard with honesty and dedication just to prove that women have the same potential that men have. Usually I used to conduct investigations on domestic violence cases, accident cases and others.”

She adds: "I feel proud to be the first woman OC in Bangladesh. Many women have been working in police, but I'm the first to run a Thana. Now, I'm working even harder to prove that a woman can handle a police station properly."

When she took to the steering wheel for the first time, 27-year-old Kakoli Gomez from Natore was unsure about the reception she would get. But now, as a professional driver for CARE, she zooms along the streets of Dhaka with confidence.

Kakoli Gomez.
Dipti Saha. Photos: Zahedul i khan

Gomez mentioned that it is difficult for female drivers to navigate the streets of Bangladesh; she says, "Most people laugh at us and don't take us seriously, we also have to endure eve teasing from male drivers and other men on the streets. The police are very nice to us though, they laugh at us but are helpful when we have trouble." When asked if she faces opposition from her family and friends

Laila F Rahim

regarding her profession, Gomez says her family and social circle are very supportive. She also mentions that it is probably easier for her because she is unmarried and has fewer responsibilities than her married colleagues; she mentions that there are 22 women drivers currently working at Care.

She also talks about the time she went for her driving test. The men were teasing the five women who were there for the test about the "disaster" they were supposedly going to witness once the women were behind the wheel. The smiles were wiped off their faces, says Gomez, when all five women passed with flying colours and all the men failed the test. "Before we left we told them never to make presumptions about people and more importantly never to underestimate women," says Gomez proudly.

Meanwhile, back in Dubai, Tania Reza's plane has been refueled and is ready to take off. As the plane taxis to the runway, Tania goes through her check list, aware that she holds the lives of 102 people in her hands. Like the landing, the takeoff goes off perfectly.

As the Airbus cruises, Tania puts it on auto pilot. For her the sky is the limit.



Liberation Calling

The current parliament has witnessed the presence of a record number of women MPs. True empowerment of women, it seems, is not far away.

Ahmede Hussain

Rain or shine, 50-year-old Afzalunnesa prepares her tea-stall in front of Fatullah bazaar, which is a few miles away from downtown Dhaka. In front of her shop, which has a corrugated tin roof, a kerosene-stove and a lot of cups, lies a big billboard with the photo of a smiling female model declaring the superiority of a particular skincare product over the others. Afzalun's face has never known any cosmetic product; years of neglect have shrivelled her skin, she is a skeleton of a woman.

Her husband left her 15 years ago; her daughter was married off at an early age and she is a mother herself now. "When he left us I was completely shattered," Afzalun says, "I was working as a help in two households. I used to get only Tk 1000 a month, and I had to pay 800 as house rent."

About half a decade on Afzalun calls it a liberating experience. And there are reasons for it. Within a few days after the husband disappeared (he turned up a year later with his new wife), Afzalun and two other women started to cart vegetables. "Our investment was little, but we tried to compensate it with our hard work," she says. A year later, the women started to grow vegetables in the government khas land. For Afzalun and her friends there is no turning back; their investment trebled within six months. Along with the shop, which she rented a few months ago, Afzalun now owns three pushcarts that vend vegetables in downtown Narayanganj.

Fatullah can claim some uniqueness in the country's political landscape. It is represented by a woman MP, who has been elected in direct vote. Not only that, the trouble that she has taken in the electioneering is no less traumatic than Afzalun's. "Over the years, politics in Narayanganj used to be controlled by the Osman clan," says Sarah Kabori, Fatullah's MP.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with MP Sarah Kabori. Photo: AP

Her husband, being the uncle of Shamim Osman, controversial Awami League (AL) leader who was in self-exile for eight years, told Kabori to vie for the seat. Her marital life was in tatters when she was given nomination by the Awami League to run the general elections of December 2008 on the party's ticket. "Obviously I wanted to run the elections. I never thought I would face difficulty at home," she says.

Kabori has received hate calls. "I was told that I would be ousted from Narayanganj if I did not turn down the party nomination," she says, "But I thank our leader Sheikh Hasina who had always encouraged me to contest the elections."

In fact, in the last parliamentary elections, the AL nominated a brave new bunch of faces, of them a large number were women. Most of these nominees had won seats, making it the biggest presence of directly elected women MPs in the history of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh. In the cabinet that Sheikh Hasina has formed immediately after winning the elections, some significant ministries have been given to women, which include ministries such as Home, Foreign Affairs and Agriculture.

Badiul Alam Majumdar of Shujan thinks these developments have immense political significance. "Our Prime Minister is a woman, so is our Leader of the Opposition. Some of the women ministers are doing well. We have questions about some ministers as some of them do not have the required background to run the ministries they are given charge of," he says.

Badiul believes that to make the existing notions about women to change, the women ministers have to deliver. "The country will go backwards if they can't deliver. He, however, says, "It is too early to make any comment as we can't evaluate their works properly, it's too premature," he says.

Kabori thinks her election and the victories of several other women candidates are a proof that the women of the country are striding forward towards empowering themselves. Badiul agrees; he says, "That day I was looking at a research done by the World Economic Forum, where 58 countries have been surveyed. There are 30 developed and 28 developing countries. And when it comes to gender equality, Bangladesh has been ranked 39 in the list. We are leading all the seven Islamic countries and we are way ahead of our two big neighbours--India and Pakistan."

He, however, is disappointed in the way the government has been treating the Upazila Parishads, especially its women Vice Chairpersons. "They are not given any work. They have practically nothing to do. It is a clear breach of the constitution, it has also been ignoring the High Court judgement regarding the local administration," Badiul says.

Kabori thinks women have come a long way and the time is not far way when women in Bangladesh will be truly empowered. "There have been massive progress in the fields of gender equality," she says.

It is ten at night when Afzalunnesa carefully takes out a teaspoonful of sugar and carefully spins it into the cup. For her is waiting a crowd of male clientele, who after a hot day's work are eager to have a sip at her 'special' tea, which is scented with cassia leaves. She is all smiles when asked if she feels uncomfortable working so late, she says, "They don't feel uncomfortable, why will I?



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