Women and work: employment and empowerment

Monica Ali,
Brick Lane,
London, 2003.

Naila Kabeer,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Women Workers and Labour Market Decisions,                                                                                                                                                                            The University Press Limited, Dhaka 2001.

The two works under review include a piece of fiction and a factual research report on the choices women make in the labour market in Bangladesh. The books are bound together by more than the acknowledgement that Monica Ali makes to Naila Kabeer's work, from which she says she "drew inspiration."

Ali's Brick Lane has been one of those books about Southasia written in English and in the West that is much feted in its place of origin, but dismissed by native Southasian readers as sensationalised and pandering to Western notions and ideas. Both responses are over-determined. Perhaps the novel did not merit, on purely literary considerations, the kind of ovation it received in the overseas media, even being nominated for a Booker Prize. It seemed that Ali was being judged more on the merits of being from Bangladesh, a country that has stayed out of the sphere of Southasian writing in English. Also, her books represents a part of the discovery of multicultural London, which had been celebrated a few years previously by Zadie Smith in White Teeth. Written post 9-11, Brick Lane contained, for Western readers, valuable insights into both exapanding Islamisation and more conventional Islamic practices and beliefs.

Leaving aside these considerations, what is valuable in Ali's book is the fascinated gaze that the author – middle-class and British, notwithstanding her Bangladeshi roots – casts on her sisters living in the East End of London. The biographical elements in the book are subsumed under the story of two Bangladeshi sisters, whom fate has pushed onto very divergent paths. Each is made to choose a life of her own, and the choice centers around work, marriage and sexuality, as well as the ability to free oneself from a predetermined destiny.

The real thing

Nazneen and Hasina are two sisters from Dhaka. Both end up working in the garments industry, Hasina in Dhaka and Narayanganj sweatshops and Nazneen doing piece-work in London. Neither sister is consciously looking for employment or 'empowerment', but the progression of life ensures that work and self-dependence is all that they can rely on. Neither sister had thought of joining the labour market, but both end up there. The matter of work – its availability, its nature and its place in a woman's life – is brought to the fore by the author in this work of fiction.

Hasina is the headstrong sister back in Bangladesh, running away from home to marry her boyfriend, who subsequently deserts her. She is buffeted along by life's challenges, and starts work in a garments factory before sliding into sex work and thereafter turning to domestic service. Marriage and men loom constantly in the background of her story, but her male 'saviours' turn out to be undependable to the last one, and Hasina is left to carry on as best as she can.

Nazneen – the heroine of this novel – starts out as the 'good' sister, obedient to her parents and marrying Chanu Mia, who happens to live in London. A believer in fate, she unquestioningly takes whatever life's cards deal out to her. It is her unemployed husband who buys her a sewing machine on borrowed money and brings her a lot of zippers to be stitched on to dresses.

In London, Nazneen's piece-work gives her a new sense of power as it opens up to her another world. Through Karim, a young middleman who links her to a garment manufacturer, Nazeen begins to gain an idea of global political events – of starving children in Iraq, of the situation in Bosnia – and of the new connotations that terms like 'jihad' and 'taqwa' had acquired in twenty-first century Britain. She becomes acquainted with local Muslim politics, where a search for identity leads British-born Bangladeshis who have never visited Bangladesh to look for their roots in global Islam.

Karim and Nazneen become lovers, and at one point Karim confesses he finds Nazneen attractive because she is the 'real thing'. The 'real thing' means that she is an 'unspoilt' village lass from Bangladesh, a land he has never seen but with which he nurtures an intimate connection. While Nazneen opens up this pristine 'real' world to Karim, he brings her in close touch with contemporary global struggles along with the local responses that are mounted in the immigrant-held streets and neighbourhoods of Western metropolises. When Nazneen watches with her husband the events of 9/11 on television, she understands the connections that the event has with the lives that she and the people around her are living. That is quite a departure.

Nazneen's 'awakening' is effected not only through work and sexual association, but also through a bond she develops with her friend Razia. The two women share similar lives – husbands who have been thrust upon them, a London habitat, work and children. In the end, Nazneen decides to stay back in London even as her husband decides to return home to Bangladesh. It is Razia who gives her the space and the ability to make that choice. Nazneen emerges as the decisive character in Ali's novel – the person who grows and comes into her own. The men in the story, including the husband and the lover, remain people with indeterminate ideas and vague words. They are not people of substance.

Sense of worth

From Monica Ali's fiction, which at times rises to the heights of what imaginative work should be and at other times disappoints through its somewhat lazy weaving together of events and characters, let us turn to the work cited as its inspiration – Naila Kabeer's The Power to Choose. Kabeer's title itself hints at the subject of the analysis: women's ability to choose their roles in the labour market. This book was researched and written out of a sense of urgency, to explain two very different responses to the selfsame phenomenon. Kabeer recalls her own sense of wonder at seeing the Dhaka streets transformed by the presence of women garment workers walking to and from work. But then there was the hue regarding bad working conditions and child labour, publicity which actually threatened the newly-emerging garments manufacturing sector in Bangladesh. What has resulted from Kabeer's concern is a remarkable record of Bangladeshi women's access to the labour market and the increase in choices they have from the success of the garment industry.

Beyond the broader economic and social considerations, the value of this report is enhanced by the first-person testimonies of women actually discussing their place in the labour market, the choices they have made, and the options that may have been available. How does one quantify or classify such testimonies; how does one categorise these life stories according to social science or economics? The question of empowerment – the power to choose – comes into operation with the decision to work, regardless of how that decision is made or who makes it.

Once a woman earns money, her position in the household changes noticeably and she also immediately gains more self-respect. Young women proudly ask their parents not to provide dowry, as they are now 'dowries' themselves! Older married women keep a little bit of their savings aside, to spend in ways that they choose. The dignity that work provides depends on several factors, including class, perception of choices, and so on. There has been a sea change in social values, with the enhanced public visibility of women in public spaces and the acceptance of the very idea of women working long hours outside their homes. All this has had an immense impact on how women are viewed in the country as a whole, and it helps that they now contribute to the largest foreign-exchange earning industry in the country. Lobbying for women's welfare in other sectors of the market has also become easier.

Naila Kabeer emphasises women's decision-making powers, for many believe that the garment worker ladies are merely 'dupes' of the marketplace, with little choice in entering the labour force and having little control over their earnings. The testimonies of the women presented by Kabeer tell an entirely different story – one of increasing empowerment, a growing sense of worth, and greater control by women over their lives and livelihood. These women compare their working conditions – low pay, long working hours, and so on – not with ideal situations but with the options they see available to them. They are able to compare different garment factories and they know where the pay is regular and where the working conditions and facilities are better. The women in the testimonies do not agree that you lose respectability by working in a factory, and they reiterate that respectability and even 'purdah' is something intrinsic to the individual woman and that generalisations made about 'garment girls' are unfair.

Her research took Kabeer to study London's garment industry as well. There, she discovered migrant women working from their homes, often under the direct control of their husbands and brothers, who may serve as channels to the factory. The women in London did not exercise the kind of choice that the women in Bangladesh reported, and neither did they occupy a central position in labour market discourse. In fact, Kabeer, shows that home-based work is often overlooked in the trade union discourse of the United Kingdom. The story of Bangladeshi women in London is the story of dependent migrants, starting with dependency on the males who processed their migration papers and ending in reliance on their husbands, brothers or fathers. Meanwhile, the family fears of external influence on the woman, by which she would lose her Bengali cultural identity, thereby putting at risk the cultural and religious identity of the community as a whole. It is within these constraints that immigrant Bengali women in London set out to work and to negotiate their place within the confines of their families.

Women on women

The two books under review – one a piece of fiction and the other a work of socio-economic research – bring to the fore the issue of women writing about women. When women put pen to paper, it is often assumed that the secrets of a woman's life will be bared and a confessional autobiographical element will emerge. When that does happen, the authors are accused of being self-indulgent and vain. On the other hand, when women write about 'other' women, eschewing the autobiographical, they are damned for being patronising or even voyeuristic, and castigated for not delving enough into their subjects. This was definitely the response that Monica Ali received from her fellow Bangladeshis in London, and perhaps explains the relative silence that has greeted her back in Bangladesh. But the 'flight of imagination' that marks her novel must be welcomed, for it amounts to an act of solidarity, an expression of respect for women whose lives are like those of the protagonists in Brick Lane. The shortcomings of the book are those of style and story-telling, not of sincerity or sisterly empathy.

Naila Kabeer's is an effort to bring women centre-stage into the discourse, in a way such that their life stories and participation inform the analysis. The Power To Choose is a brave and pioneering effort to enliven academic discourse, to remind writers, researchers and policy-makers that real lives are involved in our deliberations and analyses, and that the voices of the subjects must find a place at the table. Both works are celebrations of the lives of Bangladeshi working women. They also stand testimony to Bangladeshi women as writers, be it in fiction or social science research.

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Himal Southasian