More than a Pretty Face…
Jennifer Ashraf Kashmi
Women today travel with confidence in the busy city streets.
Photo: Zahedul I Khan
The other day I ran into a senior relative of mine, whom I disliked intensely. However, as society dictates, we immediately began indulging in polite chit-chat about the weather, the number of weddings we had attended this year, and the political system of Bangladesh (the oh-so-familiar 'Ai desher je ki hobe!'). Halfway through our conversation I recalled why I always had such passionate misgivings about her. When I was eight-years-old I remember standing in a hospital corridor, anxiously awaiting news of the birth of my baby cousin. After what seemed like ages, the doctor finally emerged and announced that I had a new baby sister. Whilst everyone thanked Allah with smiles on their faces, I couldn't help but notice how apprehensive my aforementioned relative looked. Finally, with a look of pure disdain, she looked up and remarked, “So, it's a girl, huh?”
Almost 15 years after the incident, it is easy to still recall the feelings experienced at that moment. Sadness, surprise, doubt, confusion and anger all seemed to seep in simultaneously. Even at that tender age I was being made aware of the shocking discrepancies between the attitudes regarding men and women in our society. Men were usually seen as the head of the family, while women were considered as advisors. Sons were regarded as blessings, while daughters were burdens. Yet today, when we emerge from our homes in the mornings, the perceived difference between males and females is almost non-existent. The days when women would grow up uneducated, get married at ages as young as 13, be a mother by 14, raise a family while accepting whatever hand-outs her husband would see fit to give her, suffer abuse from husband and relatives, and generally be considered a liability those days are over. In today's generation and current Bangladeshi society, the role of women in our culture has changed drastically. No longer merely just confined to being regarded as stay-at-home mothers, there are now mothers getting an education and careers, and often making enough money to be able to support themselves.
The opportunities are endless. Careers revolve from office-oriented jobs, teachers, social workers to even include women entrepreneurs. What is more surprising, and encouraging at the same time, is the way in which Bangladeshi society has started accepting women's new roles. Whilst women's rights and status improved quite dramatically in western society, there was extremely little progress in Asia in this respect. Bangladesh, while being a predominantly Muslim country, still nursed a belief that a woman's rightful place is only at home, taking care of her husband and in-laws and raising children. The evolution of updating people's preconceived notions didn't happen overnight, but the most drastic change has come about during the last decade.
These days it is the norm to ensure that in major cities like Dhaka and Chittagong, the majority of girls are educated to a minimum of undergraduate level. The number of women who decide to pursue a Masters degree is also increasing. Husbands and in-laws are more accepting, understanding and positive about the concept of further education after marriage. There is much less pressure on wives to start having children immediately, and their views and feelings are also given due consideration. More surprisingly, friends and family aside, financial institutions, banks, and offices are also in support of the growing independent trend shown by women. Banks currently are more lenient while helping out with loans to women entrepreneurs, and firms and companies have also begun to recognise women as assets and not liabilities. It just goes to prove that women can do anything, do it well and do it in style!
Cities aside, even women in villages today have grown more independent. Many of these women are drawing support from NGOs. Wife abuse, dowries for marriage and bigamy have decreased considerably, even though it is still a long way from being obliterated completely. Women in villages with work opportunities, especially in the textile industry, have also become more independent, choosing to get married and starting a family at a later age. Widowed mothers were not considered to have any entitlement to land left over by their deceased husband, daughters were not considered as ethical and legal beneficiaries of their father's property. In villages and rural areas, the change is slow, but it's happening one day at a time.
We now know the importance of standing united; ironically our independence requires our dependence and mutual respect for each other and, most importantly, our support for one another. Stand out in any busy street in Bangladesh today and you'll see women rushing off to jobs, travelling with confidence; walk into any office in Dhaka today and you'll see women brimming with self-assurance working alongside men and being treated as equals career wise; enter any family home tonight and you'll see the lady of the house reigning supremacy and being a glorious figure of poise, composure and dignity.
It's easy for me today to make civil conversation with my disdainful senior relative, as I can stand strong and confident in the knowledge that I'm an independent career woman today, not any less than a male counterpart of the same age and background. I was lucky to have parents who never treated me any less than how they would have treated a son. And even though she'll probably never realise it, I am secretly thankful to my disdainful senior relative for making me aware of the preconceived notions of the differences between women and men. This was what gave me the added determination to make myself excel, to prove her wrong in her perception that the birth of a baby boy was more of a reason for celebration. I am a woman now, and I'm more than just a pretty face…