By Najma Sadeque
This year, International Women’s Day comes on the heels of an ‘elected’ government winding up and preparations towards electing a new one. Will it make any difference to women? Not likely…
The past five years have been damaging to an appalling and unprecedented degree for the economy, business, industry, jobs; and as usual, women got the worst of it. Recovery has been made even more difficult and slower by the overwhelming degree of debt and corruption, and too many foxes continuing to guard the hen-houses at all levels.
There are indeed many successes among the middle-class – it is easier to be successful when you can take the basics of life for granted. And it’s no competition for the minority of the upper class. Much is made of women parliamentarians, but most have their hands tied by limits placed by their parties, and some are feudal themselves. Celebrating this cadre would be a false show compared to what is happening to the vast majority.
The truth is what women need and have rights to, does not cost a fortune, does not require foreign exchange, can create millions of jobs, and enable them to be self-reliant while creating profits for the country. The priorities of rulers are however different, and one of them is not to let women get the upper hand – although that has not been asked for – just an equal rank.
For voters seeking a new and just guard, they have to keep in mind, that good intentions alone are not enough. Much has to be done to undo wrongs across the board, and far more protections provided for women against habitual male suppression and oppression. Legislators have to look beyond generalizations and look into ground realities to make effective pro-women policies instead of relying on ‘time’ to change male attitudes.
Situations like the true stories below illustrate, replicated with variations thousands or millions of times over, reflect a vast class of women whose rights as citizens are never addressed.
For a woman to become a teacher has long been a safer option as a working woman. It is respectable and non-controversial, linked with the proper upbringing of children including one’s own, and therefore denotes responsibility and decorum.
Bano and her sister learnt the value of girls’ education, from working with educated employers. She was a widow, while her younger middle-aged sister was unmarried. Together they brought up the three small daughters of their eldest sister who had died. They lived rent-free in the home of their bachelor brother in exchange for cooking meals and looking after the house. The father of the girls who saw no future in daughters, expressed his inability to bring them up and was perfectly willing to pack them off to an orphanage. But the sisters were more than happy to adopt them. Girls, they said, brought blessings to a home. They were confident, hardworking women with supportive employers, even though their work was only as domestic help.
All the girls went to school. Their school fees, books, uniforms and stationery were paid for by pleased employers; also ‘Eidi’, new clothes and small rewards for passing exams. The eldest girl tried to make her aunts/adoptive mothers literate. They laughed and said it wasn’t necessary. The girls should concentrate on their own future. The employers promised to continue to pay for their education – college or technical school. The future was bright. The eldest was less than have a year away from her matriculation examination. She could hardly wait.
Then something went wrong. The sisters fell out. The single middle-aged aunt married an already married man. Her sister was scandalised. Where did she pick him up from? How could she manage to bring all three girls up by herself? Her sister said she would take the youngest, her favourite. That didn’t satisfy the older sister. In anger and without warning, she sent for the girls’ father and told him to take the girls away; she could not longer bear the burden.
The father didn’t mind. The girls were older and could take care of themselves, even look after the house. They were good-looking and he would be able to obtain high bride-prices for them. The younger aunt appealed to the employers. They tried to help, but were helpless under the law. He was their father and held all rights irrespective of who brought them up. There was nothing in writing that transferred any rights to the aunts.
Overnight, the heartbroken girls were wrenched from the only home they knew and loved. How could their aunt, whom they called mother, do this to them? Their education came to an abrupt end. They no longer had any say in their lives. Over the next years, they were married off one by one to men much older than themselves and unlike themselves. They became housewives, shut in from the outside world.
The youngest became a working woman, although not in the way she had expected. The husband didn’t earn enough and a second income was needed, but her children were too small to be left alone. It so happened that her younger aunt’s marriage didn’t last. She came to live with her and look after the children so that the mother could go out and work. As a literate cook, more sophisticated than most, she is prized by her well-to-do employers, and receives better than minimum wages. Of course, it’s nothing like being a teacher or other professional where one could rise in life. But maybe the future would be different for her own daughters whom she is educating, and her employers are helping…
Wanting to learn so as to become a teacher
Most little girls, when asked, express an interest in going to school. Older girls and women who haven’t had the opportunity will generally concede that if it did not interfere with their household chores, they would love to learn too.
Teenaged Jahan once lived on the edge of the city with her extended family. Some members went to work seasonally on farms in and around the city, others in homes and factories. Jahan and the other women were exposed to some women’s NGOs who offered literacy and healthcare. Not all were able to avail of literacy classes. Jahan was one of them. Being the eldest, she was constantly saddled with caring for younger siblings while the older women worked elsewhere. The women were too tired on returning home to attend to the children, or had to cook, so she couldn’t attend evening classes either.
For every class Jahan managed to attend, she missed several. Even then, the teacher’s kind and patient encouragement, the stories she read out, and the possibilities she talked about in the outside world, filled her with great longing. The teacher became her role model. She always said it was never too late to learn. Maybe she too could become a teacher some day. But Jahan didn’t get much beyond stringing alphabets together into words.
For various reasons, Jahan’s father and family were forced to go back to their village to work as sharecroppers. It was isolated; the nearest bus was a mile’s walk away. There were no local schools or health centres. Her work was the same as the other females – working in the fields, cooking, washing, looking after younger ones. It was like a forgotten place, like hundreds of others. Jahan’s only hope was shattered. She took it hard.
We were just chance passers-by. As curious researchers, we stopped to talk to the family who were mostly home by late evening. Before the menfolk got back, one got a chance to take aside Jahan, who had been pensive throughout our visit, giving off vibes of wanting to talk to us alone. Her story overflowed in a rush like an avalanche. “I wanted to learn because I want to become a teacher,” she sobbed uncontrollably, “I can still learn if I get a chance.”
Perhaps hope, unless it is played out to fruition, isn’t always a good thing after all.
The teacher who made it
Farzana was, as she put it herself, from lower middle-class. Her father and brothers worked in the better industries. As the only girl in the family, they doted on her, and supported her in becoming a graduate. She helped neighbours’ children with their homework, and conducted literacy classes on a voluntary basis for a CBO (community-base organisation). That helped her get a job at a small private school in the neighbourhood. It didn’t pay much, but it raised her stature in others’ eyes. She saw it as a stepping stone. It also gave her time to study after school hours for the MA exams. When the time came for her to be married, she was wed to a good man. But later, with babies to attend to, she had to give up her job and postpone her plans for her MA.
Then suddenly her husband died in an accident. Whether she stayed on with her in-laws or sought refuge in her parental home, it became imperative to work. She began to look for a teacher’s job. It wasn’t that easy. There were more prospective teachers than openings available. Many had more experience than she did. Besides, her teaching work had been interrupted by several years.
Someone suggested that she should try for a job in a government school. That turned out to be even harder. Government teachers’ jobs, she discovered, were on sale. Functionaries in a certain education department could help. The price varied between 25,000/- and 50,000/- depending on the location of the school and the class level to be taught. She had no money, so she stopped trying.
After some months, her in-laws’ patience being tried to the hilt, she lowered her expectations. She was ready to take on almost any kind of job. She even tried home-based work, trimming plastic goods of excess matter from the mould. But it did not pay enough. Neither did packing ‘agar-batti’ or other items at home, or stringing beads. She knew that well-to-do homes paid well – or at least minimum wages – for good domestic help. She began to look for such an opening.
But people wouldn’t employ her because she was a graduate! They felt embarrassed. Finally she stopped telling people she was a graduate, merely that she was literate. Not that they didn’t notice she was a cut above the rest. Finally, after declining an offer as a nanny which would have paid higher wages – she couldn’t bear the thought of showering lavish attention on other children when she couldn’t on her own – she took a day job as a general housekeeper, also giving assistance on the cook’s day off. She hasn’t told her family or in-laws what kind of work she does. The risk of losing her job is too great.
They’re still burning women, aren’t they?
Over the decades, there have been cases of women being burnt to death, usually put down to kitchen accidents even when they weren’t. It is hard to say which methods are most used. But burning women to death continues even if not widely reported. Silence is enforced by the family itself.
About 20 years ago, literacy, health and general knowledge classes were being conducted in a low-income community. When a regular attendee did not turn up for a couple of classes, and we asked where she was, we were met with dead silence. Afterwards a couple of women confided that her husband wanted to remarry and asked her to leave. She had nowhere to go, so he resolved the problem by burning her. But she didn’t die immediately as expected, and he was waiting for her to die, denying her any assistance whatsoever, including water to drink. Horrified, we demanded her address and made ready to go to the police and even the highest authorities if necessary.
The women shrank back. No, they said. It was of no use. If the police came, they would be bribed into silence. It was not the first time this had happened. That shocked us even more. They would not publicly admit to what had happened nor would anyone else. If anyone happened to hear her moans or cries for help, they ignored it. So we wouldn’t be able to prove.
In their community, almost everyone was related to everybody else by marriage. This was considered a family affair, a clan affair. The men might inflict harsh physical punishment even on those who tattled. Finally, if we interfered, we as an NGO would be thrown out of the community and never be allowed to return. We were the window to the outside world and they didn’t want that to happen. The woman died soon after, a long, slow agonising death. It took nerves continuing to work there, thinking of a much-liked woman who was tortured to death by her own husband and getting away with it. They never identified him to us.
Our governments have always been adept at setting up women’s ministries or special committees for women – all without powers or the money to implement plans. Surveys are done reflecting middle-class women’s values or expert opinions as to what women want, but no one asks about what the less privileged women actually need. Things like water and sanitation, primary health care, job-placement agencies, legal services, credit, all the public services all governments are supposed to extend, and a range of protections including from a criminal police and feudal lords (a handful of small shelters can’t cater to thousands) for women in an extremely predatory society that ours has become. If there’s a five-year plan for women, these needs should be their focus.
This article appeared in You Magazine, The News on Tuesday, March 05, 2013