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     Volume 7 Issue 34 | August 22, 2008 |

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Straight Talk

A Woman of Substance

Nadia Kabir Barb

The diminutive birdlike young woman ushering me into the small therapy room made me feel almost Amazonian by comparison. Her petite stature made me a little sceptical as to how she was going to be physically able to do my physiotherapy treatment. But I decided not to voice my concerns until and unless she was unable to carry out my treatment properly. However, it only took a few minutes to make me realise that I had grossly misjudged this young lady as she was perfectly competent and knew exactly what she was doing. After my short and excruciatingly painful session, I was taken back to the rather cramped waiting room while my therapist made another appointment for me. As I sat wedged between a lady who informed me she was suffering from back pain and a gentleman with a dislocated shoulder, I was able to observe my surroundings at leisure. I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the people working in the physiotherapy department were all women. They bustled around and smiled and joked with each other and with their patients. It made me realise that Bangladesh is at last changing, and in many respects, for the better, albeit very gradually. Women in our country are at last stepping out of their stereotypes and becoming more independent and self-aware. This optimism was further increased by my conversations with Mishu, my physiotherapist.

Initially Mishu, was a little shy and did not really converse with me but within a day or two she had shed her inhibitions and was chatting away like an old friend. I was astonished to find that she was only twenty years old and had already been working at the hospital for a few years. Each day she would tell me a little more about herself and my admiration and respect would grow. She had left Barisal at the tender age of sixteen after her matriculation and moved to Dhaka. I asked her if she shared accommodation with the other girls at the hospital but she shook her head and told me that she had her two younger brothers living with her and both were studying. 'In other words, you're supporting your brothers and looking after them?” I queried. “Yes I am”, she replied with a smile, “My father died a few years ago and I wanted them to be with me as my mother can't look after them properly.” A huge responsibility for someone so young I thought to myself.

As my therapy progressed, Mishu would ask me about my life in London and wanted to know about the status of women in the West. Being possessed of a curious disposition myself, I too would ask about her day-to-day life and her views and opinions on a whole host of topics and was delighted to find that she was quite eloquent and had a ready response to all my questions.

“I wake up to say my prayers in the morning then go back to sleep for a little while. But around six I'm up as I have to take a bath and make breakfast for my brothers and myself before coming to work. Once at work, it can be non-stop all day as there are so many patients. We can barely keep up with the numbers.”

“After work I go home and the first thing I do is clean the place --- I hate living in a dirty environment or where it's messy. I like to make sure the bed is made properly, my showcase is dusted and that the clothes on the 'alna' are tidy” This little spark of pride in her home warmed my heart. She explained to me that after cleaning and tidying her home she would then have to rush out to the bazaar as it fell on her shoulders to do the shopping and the cooking. By the time she finished all her chores, she would be too exhausted to do anything but put her head on the pillow and fall asleep. “It must be tiring for you to have to do this day in and day out” I interjected. “It is, but at least I'm earning my own living and can support my brothers --- trust me that's worth it”, quipped Mishu.

On one occasion I asked her whether her family wanted her to get married and she made me laugh when she informed me that she had told her mother and relatives in no uncertain terms that she would not come and visit them if they kept pestering her about marriage. According to her this threat seemed to have worked like magic as they did not broach the subject in her presence!

With a great deal of caution and trepidation, I asked her what her view on marriage was. “Apu,” she began, “right now I am independent, I look after my brothers and am my own master, but in our country when women get married, they are expected to stay at home, look after their husbands and in laws and of course have children.” If it were socially acceptable, Mishu expressed a desire to remain single and be financially independent. “If I get married, I will probably have to give up my job and be a submissive and dutiful wife. I've seen some of my friends and relatives, their husbands come back from work, pick up a newspaper and expect their wives to bring them some tea and then wait for dinner to be served. Why would I want that? I can do a man's job and a woman's. I can work in the hospital and also my home. How many men do both?” She did have a point. “If I could marry someone who would treat me as an equal, it would be a different story.” It was inspirational for me to hear someone of such a young age and coming from such a humble background, holding such strong and progressive views. Economic autonomy can give a person a sense of security, self-confidence and pride and Mishu's story is just one out of all the thousands of women who are working and living in Dhaka. We only have to look at the garments industry, beauty parlours, hospitals, etc. to realise that there is a gradual shift in the attitude and outlook of the female workforce in our country and long may it last…

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