Food for Thought
Bad Attitudes and Worse Behaviour
As I discussed in the earlier part of this article (which can be found online at: http://www.thedailystar.net/magazine/2010/03/03/food.htm), despite the considerable progress made by various non-government and government initiatives undertaken to promote gender equality, the reality of women's lives in our society sometimes makes horrifying reading from the unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality to the daily descriptions of abuse, torture and murder that feature in every one of our many newspapers.
The question then becomes, how do we actually change the situation? Along with putting in place law enforcement systems that actually work (and seem like a distant dream at this point of time), there is also the fundamental issue of changing some of the negative attitudes and stereotypes that pervade our society. And while that may seem like an enormous task, there is evidence to indicate that such changes are possible without necessarily requiring decades to pass as we strive for measurable progress.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to visit an NGO initiative that really impressed me by what had been achieved in a relatively short space of time. The Gender Quality Action Learning (GQAL) programme was introduced at the community level just a few years ago by BRAC, with the aim of changing discriminatory attitudes towards women and explicitly involving men in the process by organizing workshops for men and women to receive training together, including some couples. Although I had initially been skeptical, the results spoke for themselves.
I was particularly interested by the experience of one man who admitted to a history of alcoholism and wife-beating. Speaking in front of dozens of people at a community meeting, he explained that over several days, his participation in the training workshop had made it evident to him that the misery of his domestic life was the result of his own behaviour, rather than the demands being made by his wife and children. In this case, he had chosen to give up drinking, consequently managing to transform his personal life in a very positive way.
Interestingly, the others present at the meeting were willing to verify that what the man said was in fact an accurate representation of the facts. I asked his wife who was also present, whether the story her husband had told us was in fact true. There was a twinkle in her eye as she smilingly responded, “More or less!” As far as his children were concerned, the truth was self-evident; throughout the meeting, his younger child sat on his lap, while the older one stopped by to rifle his father's pockets once, and interrupt what he was saying another time. On both occasions, the father responded good-naturedly; this was clearly a changed man.
But if this couple have managed to find a degree of marital harmony, others are not always so lucky, regardless of their religious or class background. I was reminded of this, when a friend told me about an incident he had witnessed as a teenager. He comes from a Hindu family, where both his parents are considered to be gourmet chefs. But as he points out, while much has been made of his father's cooking skills, his mother's mouth-watering creations have largely been taken for granted - by none more so than his father. Although my friend's mother made a great effort to live up to her husband's exacting standards, he was frequently ruthless in his criticisms. Despite that, my friend's mother never argued with him.
It was left upto her two teenage sons to feel upset or insulted on her behalf. “There was one day when Baba didn't like the daal my mother had cooked. Instead of telling Ma so in a normal way, he sarcastically said, 'What happened to this? Did the roof cave in and let in the rain?' The worst thing was, my mother just accepted it, apologising because the daal was too watery. My brother and I both thought it tasted quite nice. And we told our father that, but he didn't even understand that we were upset because our mother had been humiliated like this!” my friend said emotionally.
Some would suggest that the example that I just gave does not constitute a serious problem. Certainly, in comparison to physical violence, or verbal abuse, this is far less unpleasant; but for many who have experienced it, either as a recipient (my friend's mother) or as an observer (my friend and his brother), it is a form of emotional abuse. And my recent conversation with another woman, whose husband is extremely wealthy, left me in no doubt of this.
Despite living in a home with a swimming pool (which she is not allowed to use, because her husband believes Muslim women should always be dressed modestly), several family vehicles, and a large number of household staff, this lady often finds herself in a difficult position. Her husband is a demanding man, and expects her to cook all his food, despite the fact that she suffers from chronic rheumatism. As if that isn't bad enough, he is quick to complain if things are not done to his taste which is more complicated than it might sound. For example, he likes his breakfast freshly prepared and served piping hot. That means that until he has finished his ablutions, no one can put his meal on the table, because he insists that it will get cold.
As a result, his entire household waits with bated breath until the click of the bathroom door indicates that shaheb is on his way to the breakfast table. It is when the signal of the opening toilet door is heard, that the gentleman's wife finally releases the egg she has been holding into the heated oil waiting to receive it. The toaster is also switched on at the same time, so that his bread is freshly toasted. Yet if there is the slightest delay in the serving of his breakfast, then too her husband loses his temper and abuses her. On one occasion, this was too much for her. So she stood up to him, pointing out that she was not a robot, and should not be treated like one. But the brief flare-up of her rebellion was soon over, and within a day or two she was back to her punishing schedule.
I couldn't help feeling sad for her, but it was easy enough to understand why she gave in. She clearly felt that she had no choice. These three instances feature people from very different social, economic and religious backgrounds, but the common factor lies in the power dynamic between men and women in these families. Until these domestic situations, which are all too familiar to most of us, become a thing of the past, it cannot be claimed that gender equality should be anything other than a high priority in Bangladesh; to take an alternative view is not an indulgence we can afford. And anyone who thinks or claims otherwise probably doesn't have to live with a husband who is physically violent, prone to alcoholic rages, verbally abusive, or otherwise considers himself entitled to mistreat or humiliate his spouse…
(R) thedailystar.net 2010