Educated women lost in oblivion

Commemorating Begum Rokeya Day on 9 December last year, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called for a change in social attitudes towards women. She said, "Not everything can be done by laws alone. There needs to be a change in mindset. There needs to be a change in thinking."

It is true that everything cannot be done by laws alone. At the same time, the rule of law is essential. Unless the rule of law is in place, a woman won't even be able to enjoy the rights given to her by the law.

It has been 51 years since Bangladesh has won independence, but have attitudes changed? The answer is simple -- no. There is still a large section of women, no matter how highly educated they may be, who are obliged to remain housebound. Sometimes it is family pressure, sometimes social pressure and sometimes family burdens that keep them within the confines of home. The patriarchal society and the state see this as quite normal.

UNESCO's 'Global Education Monitoring-2022' published on Wednesday has given us a cause for concern, even alarm. The survey, run from 2017 to 2020 on citizens of 84 countries of the world, reveals that the people of Bangladesh have an extremely adverse attitude towards women joining any job. Of the adult persons of Bangladesh who took part in the survey, 87 per cent said that children are harmed if women work outside of the home and so it is not good for them to take up jobs. In other words, men work outside and earn, while women will be restricted to looking after the children and carrying out other household chores.

This amounts to confining women within the home. Virginia Woolf had written that a woman does not have a room of her own. In our society, a girl lives in her father's home, after marriage she goes to the home of her husband. Where is her own home?

A comparison can be made between this survey and another one recently published. A study by a non-government organisation stated, 74 per cent of the people believe that bad girls are more harmful to society than bad boys! The bad girls are considered to be those who work night shifts, work in the media, and work alongside men. In a country where men do not consider it good for a woman to work outside of the home, it is hardly likely they will approve of a woman working the night shift with male colleagues.

In the progress report of UNDP's Millennium Development Goals (MDG), it had been written that the education rate among 15 to 24-year-olds in Bangladesh is 75.4 per cent. Among this, the rate of female education is 76.6 per cent. And the male education rate was 74 per cent, that is, 2.6 per cent less than that of women. According to the report, the primary school enrollment rate at present is 97.7 per cent, but at the primary level the enrollment of the girl child has increased to 98.8 per cent. The enrollment of boys remained at 96.6 per cent. Even Nobel prize winning Bengali economist Amartya Sen pointed out that Bangladesh is doing better than India and other neighbouring countries in female education.

The UNESCO report stated that madrasa girl students were more advanced in their thinking than girls who studied at schools

Girls have been doing well over the past few years in the SSC and HSC exams. When and where do all these good students go? Can they use this success later, in higher education or in their careers? Statistics say, no, they cannot.

The UNESCO report reveals certain facts contrary to our common perception. Many believe that students of schools and colleges are more progressive in their thinking than madrasa students. But the survey reveals quite the opposite. In fact, while 20 per cent girl students of madrasas believe that it is more important for boys to have higher education than girls, this belief is among 26 per cent of the school girls. And while 25 per cent of the madrasa students feel that a woman should have less education than her husband, 30 female school students held this conviction. Among madrasa girls, 21 per cent believed that boys needed more nutrition than girls to be strong and healthy, while among school girls, this belief was held by 26 per cent.

The UNESCO report stated that madrasa girl students were more advanced in their thinking than girls who studied at schools. Madrasa student of Feni, Nusrat Jahan, had the courage to expose her principal's lust. She paid for this with her life, something that many school or college students would not have been able to do.

Unless this backward mindset in our society is changed, then women's empowerment will be nothing but rhetoric. At the primary and secondary level, we have almost the equal number of girl and boy students. In some instances, the girls outnumber the boys. Then the numbers decline at college and university level. Even so, every year thousands of girls emerge from college and university, armed with high degrees. But a section of these women with higher education never appear in the professional field. In fact, women's participation is much higher in physical labour such as the industries, service or agriculture. Family, social and religious reasons lie behind this.

Alongside boys, girls too want to apply their knowledge they have gained not just to the family, but also to the society and the state. Many even start out with careers, but cannot last for long. They are not supported by their families. Working women all too often face unpleasant experiences. The reason women lag behind in the workplace is that men do not want them to work outside the house. So even armed with the highest university degree, many spend their entire lives as housewives, not voluntarily, but under force.

Working women face hindrances at every step. That is why even though rates in women's education increase, they remain behind in the workplace. According to a manpower survey by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), there are 18.2 million (1 crore 82 lakh) women in the labour market of Bangladesh. On the other hand, there are 42.5 million (4 crore 25 lakh) men in this labour market. But there are 9.6 million (96 lakh) men outside of the labour market, with the rate of male unemployment being 3 per cent. The rate of female unemployment is 7 per cent.

We dream of a Bangladesh where men and women will be equal in numbers in buses, trains and offices. They will not be restricted to mere housework

When we come out on to the streets, how many women do we see? How many women passengers are there on the buses and the trains? Other than during festivals, they do not make up even 10 per cent. On any bus, there are 4 or 5 women against 40 men passengers. They naturally feel vulnerable.

When will these numbers equalise? We dream of a Bangladesh where men and women will be equal in numbers in buses, trains and offices. They will not be restricted to mere housework. In any country of East Asia, women are in equal numbers as men at the workplace, sometimes even more. That is because no one there feels that women should only work at home. Men and women share work at home and work outside of the home too.

In 'The German Ideology', Karl Marx wrote that the division of labour between men and women first emerged over the child reproduction. The first class distinction in the world emerged between men and women. The first class discrimination began with the exploitation of women by men.

Bringing women out of the home may be the most effective step to end that exploitation.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir