When women want to study abroad
Last summer, one of my dissertation supervisees approached me as she plans to go abroad for higher studies. This is nothing unusual. Every year, a number of students, both graduate and undergraduate, ask for advice, suggestions and in the end some of these people also require recommendation letters. Finally, a fortunate few fly out to pursue their cherished dreams. I asked my rote questions—when she plans to go and if she plans to apply for funding or if she plans to pay on her own. And then I asked reluctantly if her parents would not object to her going on her own. This is a question I hate to ask, but when it comes to female applicants, I have learnt to pose it. This is because there have been occasions in the past when even after securing the funds, the student's family objected by saying that she would need to get married first. Once, a young woman who complied with her parent's wishes had to cancel her plans as per instructions from her in-laws who told her: "You're married now. Have a baby first. Then we'll see."
More often than not, many of these families are educated and claim to be progressive, and while they do not object to their sons going abroad for higher studies, they do have major reservations about their daughters doing the same. There was a time when education was reserved for boys only. It is widely known how Begum Rokeya practically had to go from door to door to get female students. But that was a century ago and we have certainly come a long way since then. In the recent past, the Bangladesh government has taken various steps to get girls educated. The HSC and SSC results also reflect that girls are as good as, if not better, than boys when it comes to performing brilliantly in these exams. Unfortunately, however, the general assumption that women are less intelligent than men is still prevalent in society. I have heard not just men, but women saying with derisive condescension, "She's a girl; she can't possibly do it". Or, "Male brains are bigger than female ones; naturally, men are more intelligent." Well, there certainly are many racist theories that try to prove that white people are superior to blacks and there is no dearth of theories that try to make women appear less than men.
The main problem lies with the structure of the patriarchal system that holds up the prevalent notions. In spite of the fact that women are working side by side with men, they are studying and getting into the same programmes at the universities, women are considered to be less than their male counterparts. Hence, it is expected that as soon as a young man finishes his studies, he should look for a job and if he wants to go for higher studies, that is also fine. For a young woman, it is more likely that she would be married off to a "suitable boy." I have asked quite a few parents what they think will happen to their precious daughter if they let her go abroad by herself. Most avoid giving a straightforward answer. Some just laugh it off and say, "She won't be able to cope by herself. We did not raise her like that." I wonder what exactly do they mean by "like that"? My experience says that Bangladeshi men are no more equipped to live on their own. Most don't know how to make a cup of tea the first time they go abroad. But by the end of their first year, they may even turn into quite good cooks. Unfortunately, many parents are afraid that their daughter will go "wild" on her own, her reputation will be tarnished and her prospects of a "good marriage" will be ruined. In Bangladesh, marriage is still the most important thing for a woman.
During my graduate studies, I realised that the mistrust of lone women among Bangladeshi communities works at an obnoxious level. When I went for my PhD, I was 37, far from a fresh graduate. Yet I was told by the wife of a Bangladeshi faculty member, "Go home. Why are you here alone? Who will look after your husband while you are getting a PhD?" A few days later, I heard the same woman advising another male graduate student, "Bring your wife as soon as you can. How long will you be burning your hands while cooking?" I could not help noticing the difference. It is assumed that a wife will follow her husband wherever he goes; her job or career dreams being immaterial. "A good woman takes care of her family first," they say. But if a husband is willing to do what a wife is universally expected to do, he becomes a source of comedy: "So and so cooks at home and waits on his wife hand and foot. What a joke!"
Another time, before an Eid function, another Bangladeshi PhD student's wife asked me as we met at the grocery store, "Apa, what will you cook for the upcoming programme?" The semester was about to end and I was drowning in grading papers and my own papers were due soon. I am an even-tempered person, but somehow, I lost it that day and asked, "What's Delwar cooking?" She burst out laughing, "He doesn't have time to even eat, let alone cooking." She added somewhat smugly, "He'll starve if I don't cook."
I smiled thinly, "Exactly. That's the same with me. I don't have time to cook."
Noting her uncomprehending look I added, "I, too, am a PhD student. I do just as much work as your husband does. And you expect that I will cook when your husband does not have time to even eat?"
Perhaps I was rude, but this is the general scenario for women pursuing higher studies on their own. Today's women are expected to do the household work and beyond after finishing the school work. I know some men who do help their wives but they are few in number. Most would either keep silent or growl, "I am not a woman." And unfortunately, many women do not realise it either. One group strives to become like the goddess Durga trying to do everything and another takes on to mock their sisters who they see as ambitious and unfeminine creatures trying to rise in a man's world. In the middle are those who get nabbed as "feminists" because they dare to raise their voices.
Hence, oftentimes families cannot accept that their daughters-in law are getting degrees. It is a general assumption that when a woman goes into higher studies, she invariably neglects her family. But if we dig into history, we will see that this is exactly how society reacted when women first strove into the job market: "Children of a working mother don't get proper care. They are raised by the servants." No offense to any mother, but the difference lies in methods, not intentions, rarely in results.
Let me then finish with a brighter picture. I started with my student asking me about graduate studies; so, I will get back to her. We were chatting on Google Meet when I asked her if her family would not object to her going for higher studies by herself. She looked at me with bright eyes and replied with a big grin, "No, Ma'am. My father does not even mention marriage. He insists that we, that is my sister and me, study to our heart's content. He says, 'Live, study and be happy. Marriage will come when it comes.'" I smiled back, "That's great news indeed." My heart soared and I prayed, "Let there be many such fathers in Bangladesh. And mothers too. Only then will we be a truly independent nation."
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also a Deputy Editor of The Daily Star.