Lifting the trophy of Bangladesh’s rise
In October 2019, The Guardian featured an article titled "The rise and rise of Bangladesh" with a string attached in its title, asking, "But is life getting any better?" The story mostly focused on the "factory generation" comprising 4.5 million textile workers who, for the UK-based daily, have changed the fame and fortunes of a country that has travelled 50 years, and is now all set to become a developing country powered mostly by its hard-working women. While referring to our working bees who are making the buzz, the article throws a sting by highlighting a case study of an unnamed garment worker, quizzing, "Or is she a sickening example of an exploited labourer, who ruins her health for companies making high margins, and consumers who buy cheap jeans?"
There is an uneasy reception of our success story. Thanks to social media content nuggets, we can easily know how others are reacting to our success. I have been watching various Indian and Pakistani news content, where pundits are seen explaining the marvellous rise of Bangladesh. They do so with a sign of admiration (perhaps with a sigh of regret) that a country that was lagging behind them in all social indicators has now leapfrogged ahead of them. In their search for the secret sauce that brewed our success, they detect the comparatively high level of female participation in the workforce as well as high enrolment of girls in primary education. The once ignored part of the society is, thus, contributing more to our social growth than those in our former "cousins." Success for them has come from the unexpected gender corner. They attempt to ignore the strategic interventions or policy implementations of the public and the private sectors. Their focus seems mostly to encourage their own policymakers to replicate our success.
Bangladesh at 50 is a mythical golden Bengal. For me, the victory of the Bangladesh U-19 women's football team just a week after our 50th Victory Day epitomises whatever we have achieved so far. The women's team has done it before—they have done it once more to make our celebration of Victory Day even more beautiful.
The "dry leaf" shot of Anai Mogini drifted into the Indian goal post when nobody was expecting it—the pressure was on, expectations were high during the SAFF final, and our U-19 women's team delivered once again in the regional tourney. Even before the match, these women were confident of a win as they had done the same in the regulation match. They were donning their red and green jerseys probably sewn by women of their own age. They had the pride of wearing the red colour of sacrifices that were once done by their previous generations. They had the pride of wearing the green colour of youthful exuberance found in our natural landscape that once made the previous generations lock horns against a mighty opponent. Bangladesh at 50 is not a black and white image of trails of refugees or under-equipped guerrilla fighters. Words are not enough to thank these young girls who have given us an occasion to celebrate our national unity. We can dismiss it as an imagined community, but the way the team has come together to lift the trophy in the final is a reflection of our aspirational identity.
The country started on a secular stride, hoping all the communities would come together as a nation. It was heart-warming to see a bearded man in a cap vigorously waving the national flag to cheer for the national women's team. Yes, I know I am harping on religious stereotypes! But this is the beauty of Bangladesh at 50: women sports being supported by religious men; a minority girl being cheered by others; contact sports being shared on virtual platforms. The team captain Ripa made a back pass to set up the ball for Anai to go for the goal. That's team play—that's Bangladesh at 50.
It will be painful if these girls are not given the right incentives (as suggested by the light trophy). I was watching the way the players and staff were lifting the trophy—it seemed very light (I could be very wrong; maybe the ones who were lifting it were either very strong or very casual). I don't know what went into the making of that trophy … but for me, it was the heaviest trophy that has ever been lifted by Bangladesh. It is made out of the dedication and hard work of the indomitable girls who wanted to give us victory on the occasion of the glorious 50th Victory Day.
Earlier, we saw how the U-16 team were sent on public buses to go back to the hill tracts after their international win in 2016. The argument given was that these girls were not used to air-conditioned buses. It was a national scandal, to say the least. We did not show respect to our sheroes.
I came across an internet image of an 11-year-old girl from the Philippines. She taped up her feet and wrote Nike in black ink as her father could not afford to buy her a pair of shoes. Still, the girl ran at the school track and field contest in her imaginary Nike shoes, and won the race. Watching our girls speak, I had a similar realisation. Our girls are no different. We need to incentivise them. This is the Bangladesh that we need to pay attention to, not the icons who whine about not being able to spend more time with families … and run away from the battles wishing their peers good luck! We know the kind. We have seen them in 1971.
Let's bet on the true winners!
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).