Women, Land and Power in Bangladesh: Jhagrapur Revisited | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 17, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 17, 2015

Women, Land and Power in Bangladesh: Jhagrapur Revisited

Author: Jenneke Arens

The University Press Limited, 2014


ENNEKE Arens has undertaken a study of a village called Baniapukur (which she has called Jhagrapur as a pseudonym) in two phases:  first in 1974-75, and then between 1998 and 2009.  The outcome of the earlier project was the book (co-authored with J van Beurden) Jhagrapur:  Poor Peasants and Women in a Village in Bangladesh (1977).  The follow-up study has resulted in Women, Land and Power in Bangladesh:  Jhagrapur Revisited.  Nine chapters and a Summary constitute a significant work, notwithstanding that the significance would be limited primarily to the village under study, rather than to Bangladesh as a whole (although her findings could reasonably apply to the rest of the country as well).  Arens sets out the rationale for her undertaking in the Introduction (Chapter 1):  “This study is about the relationship between women, land, empowerment and social transformation.  Do women who own land have more power in their social relations than women who do not, and can land ownership contribute to a structural transformation of gender and class relations?”  The answer she finds to the first question may be summarized as “possibly, but…”, and to the second as “probably, provided….”

The author looks to contribute to the theories and debates on the processes of structural transformation of Bangladesh's society, and concludes (in “Summary”) with this realistic assessment:  “…to change structurally unequal relations and injustices implies the transformation of centuries-old ideologies and institutionalized practices.”  It is a hard task to be sure, but one not impossible to achieve, although it will be an arduous process.  She is under no illusion about what this process will entail:  “For such a transformation, a dialectical process of women's and men's collective and cooperative agency, fundamental changes in people's mindset from hierarchical thinking to an all-inclusive egalitarian, non-exploitative thinking and concerted efforts to put these changed mindsets into practice collectively are required…. This is a long and complicated process that takes the sustained efforts of at least several generations….” (Ch. 9, “Reflecting on Women, Land and Power”).

Arens concludes that the existing patriarchal class structure of the village with its dogma of women's dependency and the non-recognition of their productive role are the primary impediments against women laying claim to land and taking control over it.  And the author is an ardent champion of women being able to do just that, not just in individual cases, but structurally.  For this to realistically come about, though, laws and regulations that are systematically implemented at the grassroots are an imperative.  Arens comes to this point after being convinced that land ownership does not automatically lead to empowerment.  She, however, acknowledges that, in the process of comparing the two periods of her study, there are indications of women's empowerment, and notices fissures in the existing gender relations.  These are good signs for Bangladesh, although Arens is correct in not jumping to any sweeping generalization:  “The question is:  are these processes moving towards structural changes in gender and class inequalities, or are they merely modifications within existing power structures?  Are class and patriarchal gender relations and ideologies, norms and values crumbling, or are they merely changing their appearance?” (Ch. 8, “Women's Empowerment in the Family and the Community”).

At the outset of the book, the author makes her position clear:  “that land would be an effective asset for women's agency to come out of their subordinate position and could play an important role in structural social transformation.”  She believes that in patriarchal societies (like Bangladesh), land distribution is unequal between the rich and the poor, and between men and women, which is a consequence of structurally unequal class and gender relations.  Arens then creditably tempers her views by essentially taking recourse to the convergence-divergence model of societies and polities:  those societies converge in some areas, diverge in others.  In her words, “However, the shape that gender and class relations take varies in different societies as a result of structured variables like differences in history, culture, religion, ideology, moral values and the structure of the state.”

Chapter 2 (“Debates on Women, Land and Agency”) is devoted largely to the theories and debates that are relevant to her study.  She critically discusses Anthony Giddens' “structuration” theory which links structure and agency across space and time.  Arens contends that the concepts of agency and empowerment are not completely synonymous, and proceeds from there on her own study, the questions it poses, the possible answers, and scope for further exploration.  Some of her conclusions include the view that neo-liberal markets are neither pro-poor nor gender-neutral, and that “people on the margins of society are less trapped in social and cultural structures, such as class and gender ideologies, and therefore may be in a better position to act in defence of, or ignore these structures.”

Chapter 3 (“Land and Economic Transformation”) is fascinating for a few unconventional (as opposed to popular) views that, admittedly, might well be contested.  Arens explains in detailed analysis that, “the introduction of the Green Revolution has led to greater class and gender differentiation.  More people have become landless, creating a larger male wage labour force with more income earning opportunities, while poor women have lost their main source of income.”  Throughout the book, Arens takes up the cudgel for women's (especially those that are poor) rights.  She continues:  “Men, machines and the market have replaced women in their productive tasks and this has further strengthened the patriarchal belief that women play no role in the production process.”  Of course, and the author alludes to some women from the village having left to work in this sector, women have been found to be very productive in the flourishing readymade garments industry.  The author is particularly critical of microfinance:  “…the claim that microfinance empowers people and is the solution to end poverty is highly debatable.”  She goes further:  “In practice, microfinance strengthens existing inequalities…. I argue that a focus on women's ownership and control over land would be much more effective against poverty than microfinance.”  She tempers her view in Chapter 5 (“Jhagrapur Revisited, Class and Gender”):  “My observations in Jhagrapur show that, at least for the village, the success of microfinance programmes is highly exaggerated.”

                Chapter 4 (“Gender Ideology and Social Transformation”), which deals with Islam, moral values, and gender ideologies, contains this thoughtful observation:  “In a way, the patriarchal ideology that men are the providers and women the caretakers, and Islamic inheritance laws contradict each other.”  Chapter 6 (“Moral Values, Gender Ideology and Power”) further deals with moral norms, values, and gender ideologies as imposed by Islam, the state, and other local and global powerful forces.  Here, too, Arens is forthright in her views.  “But morals and values are not uniform and there have been contradictory developments.  On the one hand, this has led to stigmatization of women while on the other hand it has created more space for women to defy certain norms and values.”  She also notices how women have modified and stretched the meaning of purdah or found other ways to maintain purdah.  “In this way, women have moulded the structure in a way that enables them to cope with the changed circumstances and to adjust to their perception of being part of the 'modern' world.”  On another issue that appears to be getting worse in this country, Arens admonishes:  “Apparently, this is how 'democracy' works:  making sure that you recover the price that you had to pay to get elected and get into power, even over the backs of the poor and powerless.  How can people be expected to have faith in this so-called democracy and its leaders?”

Ch. 7 (“Women's Land Ownership in Jhagrapur”) addresses the matter of women's relationship to land, highlighting the stories of three women.  There is a minor mistake in the book.  CO translates into Circle Officer, and not Chief Officer as a section of the book would have it.  Jenneke Arens has written an absorbing book based on her extended periods of stay in a village in Bangladesh.  She has definitely noticed improvements in general in the village, including in the lot of women in particular instances, over two periods of research and study.  That is good news, although more is needed to be done, especially for women.  Some will find Arens' views controversial, but few would dispute that the book is compelling reading.

The reviewer is an actor and educationist.


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