I FIRST participated in International Women’s Day celebration during my days at the university. Those were the days when I came to know about the history of this special day. The movement originally started from the demand of working class women in the United States to ensure eight hours work and a congenial environment in the factory setting. Then the movement spread over in different parts of Europe and elsewhere. That was the starting point of International Women’s Day.My first International Women’s Day celebration is still fresh in my memory. I was very moved by the ideology and the spirit of the day. However, after more than a decade of working in the field of development and gender in Bangladesh, I now feel that I experience the day differently. Here, all effort of gender equality is reduced to some ‘tools and techniques’. I often wonder where the application of the ideological aspect of the day is. For example, how do we view the history and struggle of working class women in Bangladesh in relation to this day’s celebration? My experiences force me to think that this day has just become another day to be celebrated.
In Bangladesh, thousands of non-governmental organisations celebrate International Women’s Day. All NGOs which directly or indirectly work on women’s rights issues celebrate the day. For them, gender equality is a kind of compliance issue. In development jargon, the term which is commonly used is gender mainstreaming. Gender is often seen as a ‘crosscutting issue’. Being a feminist and development practitioner, I want to understand and analyse the spread and weight of these practices. As an insider to this field, I see that the celebration of this day has become popular among urban middle-class citizens. Every year there is a huge gathering at the Central Shaheed Minar in Dhaka organised by different NGOs and there are also other forms of celebration. Many people celebrate the day just to show their respect to women. There are also people, who celebrate the day by wearing special dresses (i.e. violet coloured dresses). Maybe, these all are positive signs. Besides the public part of the celebration, it is very common now for most NGOs to celebrate the day within their organisation (i.e. sending greetings on this day, wearing violet clothes, holding cultural programmes). Specially, wearing violet clothes is rapidly becoming an integral part of the celebration. I remember, a few years back, a colleague of mine was very shocked to see me not wearing a purple dress on an International Women’s Day. She said in an accusing tone, ‘Oh gosh, you haven’t put on your violet dress today! It’s really unbelievable.’ It just so happened that I was one of the gender equality concern persons for that organisation. In recent years, some organisations have introduced new events, greeting garment workers with a flower when they are on their way to the factory. Someone can say there is nothing wrong with that as historically the female factory workers started this movement.
But I can’t help saying that all this amounts to a kind of lip service because reality is actually the reverse. Recently, a massive factory fire occurred in Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia. More than a hundred workers were burnt to death as the fire raged throughout the night. Many international news media reported that it was the largest factory fire in the history of the garment industry. I started to follow the news from all sources, i.e. TV channels, print media and social network site. From the beginning, I noticed that there was an ambiguity in the numbers of the dead workers as most of the bodies of dead workers were not intact. Actually, there was a lack of clear-cut effort on behalf of the authorities concerned (i.e. the government, the BGMEA, and the garment’s industry owner) to take charge of the whole thing including the number of casualties. We still do not know the actual number of deaths. Given this situation, I had expected women’s rights activists to be out on the streets vigorously taking up the issue because women’s rights had been severely violated. But unfortunately there was no significant voice from that quarter. I have not yet seen any significant protest from women’s groups, any strong demands being raised to disclose the actual number of deaths, to punish the garment factory owner or to award compensation. Although some activists were visible on TV talk-shows, they were not to be seen on the ground. Interestingly, I along with other members of Activist Anthropologist noticed some kind of relief work being undertaken by an NGO in Nishchintapur, but they were completely silent about the systematic mismanagement in Tazreen. During this period, I observed some women’s groups coming out on the streets to protest against the rape incident in Delhi, One Billion Rising Global Campaign on VAW, etc. Of course, these are all important issues. And I thank them for raising the issues and taking a stand on those issues. But which issue is more important in our context?
Being a feminist and professional in this field, can I deny my role and responsibility? After the day of the Tazreen factory fire on November 24, 2012, I was conducting a workshop in Chandpur on gender. An image of a burnt female worker haunted me during the whole workshop. I could not stop thinking about the charred face which had a glittering gold nose pin. Some questions haunted me. What are we doing in the name of gender equality? Whom are we working for? Whose purpose/agenda is being served?
Because of the confusion surrounding the number of casualties and inadequate efforts to identify the number of deaths, I and a group of friends, trained in anthropology began to conduct research in Nishchintapur, we started with a survey. As a member of Activist Anthropologist, I first went to Nishchintapur 5 days after the fire. Thousands of people were gathered in Nishchintapur school ground. I found some of Nischintapur’s inhabitants discussing the fire incident, and some relatives of dead workers were shedding tears. Some of the survivors narrated their experiences to us. Most of them were searching for missing family members or relatives. We talked to many workers. Each and every one of them was somehow connected with the victim or the dead or the unidentified workers. Most of the victims, dead or missing, were female. Although I have no experiences of a post-war situation, the situation in Nishchintapur reminded me of that. So many lives lost, so much suffering.
Over the last couple of months, we have gone to Nishchintapur many times. Through my visit and interaction with workers and their families, we started to learn some everyday truths about Tazreen Fashions and several other garment factories in and around the city. The information which saddened me most is that there was a strict gender division regarding the use of the stairs, it was executed even in emergency situations. Usually, garments factory authorities keep the stairs and floors locked, especially those stairs used by female workers, and the sewing floor where most of the workers are female. So, whenever any accident happens, in most cases, female workers are always the worst affected. Our data on unidentified dead workers also supports this hypothesis. It shows that 82 per cent of the unidentified workers were female. At Tazreen, the situation was far worse because there were piles of garments under the stairs for female workers. The few women who were fortunate enough to escape the spreading flames were able to do so by using the stairway reserved for male workers. We further learnt that usually the floors where women work, are kept locked at Tazreen, this means that female workers can’t go upstairs to have tiffin, they can’t take a break because that would mean a ‘waste of time’. But factory rules were different for male workers. As a male worker put it, ‘it’s easy to manage the girls, to silence them, but it’s difficult to do the same to men — that’s how society works. The same rule applies in the garments factory. Therefore, the factory authorities apply different rules for men and women workers. They don’t lock the floor where men work, they are allowed to go upstairs, to take breaks.’
Listening to him reminded me of an article by Diane Elson and Ruth Pearson where they spoke of the ‘nimble finger’ of female workers, of how it had helped the garment industry mushroom, of the high number of female worker intake in South and East Asian factories. The article had given me the impression that the biological trait of female workers had helped in the rise of the female industrial workforce in East and South Asia. But the Tazreen fire has led me to rethink. Actually, factory owners are exploiting the marginalised condition of women. According to some female workers, the authorities are usually reluctant to employ assertive workers. After the fire incident, since there was a baby crèche in the factory, since some kids’ materials, i.e. baby cot, had been discovered among the ruins, a rumour had circulated that children, too, had been burnt to death. However, it turned out that there the material had been placed to demonstrate to buyers that the factories complied with international standards. The fact of the matter is that the condition of women workers has not changed. Their lives are at risk. According to a Tazreen survivor, ‘I don’t think I can ever sit at the sewing machine again, actually I can’t.’ A good number of female workers in Tazreen were under-aged.
I conclude by musing on a conversation with Kamala Bhasin. While interviewing her in 2009, I had asked her, how do you view the professionalization of women’s rights activism? She had replied, ‘I see professionalisation of women’s rights activism as a positive thing. I think a movement is a much larger thing. So, if there is NGO-based feminist thinking and activities, I view it as being a part of the feminist movement. They are still challenging patriarchy, they are still writing against it, working against it, even if they are working 9 to 5 but now 5 to 10 thousand organisations are working on it.’ I don’t disagree with Bhasin, not fully. Of course, a movement is a much larger thing and we are also part of it. But the professionalisation of women’s rights activism is not the final answer. I think we should rethink our role, rethink our context and time. We need to ask whether a 9:00am-5:00pm feminism is adequate to bring change. Or, does it act as a barrier to contextualising the feminist agenda in Bangladesh? We must raise these questions for the sake of our movement.
[*Thanks to Rahnuma Ahmed and Mahmudul Sumon for editing the piece, thanks also to my friends at Activist Anthropologist.]
Originally published in NewAge 8 March 2013 supplement. Photo: Saydia Gulrukh