The identity crisis and challenges that women face in Bangladesh
Aside from the essentialist concepts of male and female, gender identities are most often socially constructed and driven by the ideology of a community. Ideologies are a set of beliefs, ideas, public discourses, and values used to make sense of the world over time. Many societal stereotypes collide with men's or women's identity, resulting in significant variations in almost every aspect of life. Inequalities like these don't just affect how people are seen on a personal level; they also contribute to and maintain the existing status quo of gender imbalance in significant public sector operations. As a result, women confront difficulties in their everyday lives, which are exacerbated if they contest or fail to adhere to gender norms, resulting in various perceptible and imperceptible disparities. Given that Bangladesh is still a traditional society, surviving the prevalent gender norms can be very challenging—if not impossible—for women.
Take, for example, this case study that elucidates how women's identity crises push them to struggle in their daily lives. Samia (not real name), a 38-year-old woman, divorced her husband three years ago, after 11 years of marriage. She is a mother of two children, aged 10 and 8. She earned a master's degree from a public university and began working for a private company after a year of her marriage. However, her husband and in-laws forced her to leave her job after the birth of her first child. Though she had no intention of sacrificing her career, her position was not strong enough to oppose this pressure.
Given that Bangladesh has a patriarchal society, which places a low premium on women's paid work, the man in the family is still considered the principal breadwinner. Even though women's participation in the workforce has increased over time, family recognition of their monetary contribution is still a long way off. Samia was forced to give up her identity as a working mother to conform to the patriarchal cultural legitimacy by becoming a conventional housewife. Furthermore, the cultural construction of "proper womanhood" in the eyes of society often limits women's power to oppose man-made rules and regulations.
Samia, soon after her marriage, realised how a woman's identity crisis problematised her survival in Bangladesh. The so-called cultural legitimacy distinguishes men's and women's identities in such a way that women are almost entirely reliant on men throughout their lives. Her father is her guardian before her marriage, her husband takes custody after marriage, and at her old age, her eldest son becomes her guardian. Although women's reliance on men shifts with time, their independence remains precarious throughout their lives.
After her divorce, Samia's first endeavour was to find a rented flat. When she was looking for a new place to live, she was told by multiple landlords that she would not be able to rent since she was divorced. She needed a male guardian to rent a flat. Women in Bangladesh seldom can depend on their self-identity to function as independent human beings. Their struggle for survival intersects with their having or not having male guardians, resulting in a form of servitude.
Samia's second course of action was to find a job. She attended many interviews. Most of the interview board, led by men, were more interested in her personal life—e.g., why she got a divorce, whether she would marry again, who was her guardian now, etc. Moreover, her age was also a topic of discussion during the job interviews.
Then came the social stigma. Samia tried to revive old friendships and restore regular communication with her relatives. But soon after her divorce, she realised many of her friends and relatives, including her own family members, had started to avoid her. She was also subjected to many suggestions from her relatives and acquaintances, who said she should "improve" her "acceptability" in society by practising a religious code of conduct. Samia found it difficult to reconcile that these were the same people who had shared many pleasant moments with her, before her divorce. After her divorce, their attitude towards her changed completely.
Samia lost her identity as a woman, a citizen of Bangladesh, and a human being in the eyes of society after getting a divorce. In her life, she donned multiple identities—a daughter, a wife, and a mother, to name a few. Men shape women's identities, and women are burdened with a plethora of those identities, some of which may be imaginary. In Samia's case, the landlords saw her only as a divorcee, her friends and relatives saw her as a woman with questionable reputation, and employers saw her as a destitute woman in need of a job.
But what about her former husband? He got married six months after their divorce. He is now living a new life with his new wife, and continuing his job smoothly. He did not face an identity crisis to marry, rent a home, continue his career, and communicate with his family members and acquaintances. While Samia struggles in every aspect of her life today, her former husband appears to be content with his current situation. This is the case because society sets different boundaries for divorced men and women in the country, resulting in gender discrimination.
The term "Equality before the law" in Article 27 of our constitution protects all citizens of the state, reflecting Articles 6 and 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 16 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Specifically, our constitution states that "the state shall not discriminate against any person solely on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth." The term "sex" is used interchangeably with "gender" here. The Bangladesh government's undertaking of this policy has advocated a statutory entitlement of equality between men and women. But the ubiquity of patriarchal cultural legitimacy overshadows a woman's legal rights in society. It is because the policy rhetoric per se does not necessarily guarantee policy effectiveness. As a result, the practice of woman-friendly norms and culture must be envisioned for future Bangladesh.
Shafiqul Islam is a PhD fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and assistant professor at the United International University in Bangladesh.