Model Citizens in Bangladesh

The Joggo Nari and the Paradoxes of Egalitarian Life

in Social Analysis
Author:
Mohammad Tareq Hasan Faculty member, Department of Anthropology, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh tareq.hasan@du.ac.bd

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Abstract

Recently dubbed the new ‘Asian Tiger’, Bangladesh developed a post-independence citizen-centered economic strategy that included generating non-farm jobs and constituting a new type of model or ideal citizen: the independent, prosperous, and entrepreneurial woman. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Dhaka, in this article I document the model citizen campaigns by analyzing female ready-made garment factory workers’ lives. I also outline the form that egalitarianism assumed in this context. I argue that through investigating the emergence of joggo nari—women who challenge gendered norms and hierarchies, aspire toward forms of gender equality, and represent new women of a new Bangladesh—central paradoxes of egalitarian dynamics, such as contradictory and multi-layered gendered relationships and expressions of personhood, desire, and freedom, may come into view.

“Amar sonar Bangla, ami tomai bhalobasi” (My Golden Bengal, I love you)

— National anthem of Bangladesh, Rabindranath Tagore, 1906

Bangabandhu desired to transform the country into a prosperous “Sonar Bangla” (Golden Bengal) where women would participate side by side with men to build the nation.

— Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh at the Global Women Leaders’ Forum (Hasina 2016a)

Global financial institutions such as JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have labeled Bangladesh a ‘frontier’ country due to its GDP growth, which has been unprecedented—above 6 percent on average over the last 30 years. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has recently cast Bangladesh as the new ‘Asian Tiger’ (Garber 2017). Bangladesh has also been featured on lists of nations seen to have a promising future, such as the Frontier Five, Next Eleven (N-11), or PwC 30, thanks to its improving investment climate, low labor costs, and sizable numbers of what are known as “economically active citizens” (Gilbert 2018: 44).

The export-oriented industrial sectors significantly help current and future economic growth paths. Beyond the rosy images of prosperity and bright prospects, however, opinions on work opportunities in the ready-made garment (RMG) factories and other low-wage industrial sectors are far more divided. According to public and scholarly discussions alike, industrial expansion in Bangladesh occurred because the supply chain could profit from cheap labor, primarily due to unpaid social and environmental costs (Hossain 2017; Muhammad 2011; Siegle and Burke 2014). Nonetheless, the media frequently portrays these millions of jobs as moving the country toward socio-economic progress through poverty eradication, economic inclusion, and liberating women from patriarchy.1 It must be noted that the government of Bangladesh has included employment generation in the non-farm/industrial sectors in its overall citizen-centered development strategy (see Paci and Sasin 2008). Nationalist hopes to rebuild the nation after its independence war in 1971 gave rise to this strategy, notably in terms of socio-economic growth through industrialization and a deliberate shift away from an agriculture-based economy. The aim of resurrecting the ‘Golden Bengal’2 has now evolved into a path toward becoming a middle-income (and eventually developed) country.

The development of Bangladesh could be analyzed from various perspectives, including economic analysis of growth, wealth redistribution (failed or accomplished), and female empowerment. However, moving beyond such a purely economic approach, in this article I trace the development agendas realized in Bangladesh since 1971 that accelerated the creation of a new kind of model/ideal citizen. This nation-building endeavor, based on the ‘engineering of citizens’, is intertwined with neoliberalism, globalization, capitalism, and the state—a process that cannot be reduced solely to economic reasoning (see Kapferer and Bertelsen 2009). Furthermore, this development agenda always had a political motivation, as demonstrated by statements of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, on multiple occasions, notably during the Sixty-Sixth UN General Assembly, when she remarked: “It is only a matter of time [before] our country will emerge as the ‘Golden Bengal’, a land of peace, prosperity and happiness” (Hasina 2011). Later, Prime Minister Hasina (2016b) also asserted:

Our development model is based on harnessing domestic resources and providing an enabling environment for foreign investment. Our investment regime is one of the most liberal in the region … Through a people-centric development model, we have turned our population into an asset rather than a burden … In Bangladesh, we have placed the highest priority on mainstreaming women in the country's development process. We have an ambitious and bold pro-women development strategy, which aims at ensuring equal opportunity and entitlement for women.

In Bangladesh, concentrated efforts have been undertaken to utilize natural and human resources to generate a new nation where specific notions about empowerment—that is, the ascription of a new identity to women who contribute no less than men—would lead to a more prosperous socio-political order for all. The governmental and non-governmental drives toward development are thus laden with egalitarian aspirations, aiming to establish, for instance, a new gendered order by engaging women in income-generating activities. Such a change alters women's long-standing non-visibility in the public sphere. Thus, in the sections that follow, I will demonstrate how ideal working citizens are part of the larger social ensemble in Bangladesh, which has, simultaneously, become a frontier of capitalism over the last 50 years. These movements, in concrete terms, have resulted in substantial cultural transformations and the destabilization of cultural conventions and institutions, expressing vernacular manifestations of global processes. I will demonstrate how women's roles and positions in home and family life have been altered, and I will specify the new roles that women workers have assumed in visions of the future for the Bangladeshi nation and its economy.

Along with examining the conditions of the garment industry workers in Gazipur, Dhaka,3 as well as the public discourses that depict the women workers’ contributions in Bangladesh, I contextualize and analyze the emergence of a particular female figure, joggo nari, as a working woman. The phrase joggo nari means ‘worthy’ (joggo) ‘woman’ (nari). This notion has two dimensions. First, it became widespread for women who engaged themselves in income-generating activities and thus started pushing against the limits imposed by traditional society and sanctioned by the religious and patriarchal construction of gender roles and social expectations for maintaining purdah (seclusion). Second, the joggo nari were as capable and competent as men in taking economic responsibility for the family while also upholding moral responsibilities in new ways. Therefore, joggo nari generated new dimensions in women's position and responsibilities for the family, society, and the country. These empowered women are also now recognized as kormojibi nari (working woman) and shadhin nari (independent woman). They represent a progressive part of the society that government initiatives and NGOs working for social development in Bangladesh have been striving to promote through social and economic development programs.

To demonstrate how women embody and manifest egalitarian ambitions in their daily lives, I will focus on how they endure, rework, transgress, and overcome the social and economic hierarchies that are assumed to be natural outcomes of economic inclusion (e.g., wage employment and productive activities) and mass economic development. In line with a core argument in the introduction to this special issue, I shall move beyond a state-centric concept of egalitarianism and trace egalitarian ambitions in realms outside a formal state-society divide. Furthermore, I highlight how liminality—a moment and space for existential shift and change—is always present in the contexts I analyze, underlining a more general point about how egalitarian (and non-egalitarian) processes are invariably dynamic and continuously (re)enact a social complex.

Developing Bangladesh through Modeling Its Citizens

After the war of liberation in 1971, with its infrastructure and economy shattered, Bangladesh launched massive development initiatives for rebuilding, rehabilitation, poverty eradication, and encouraging the socio-economic growth of its inhabitants. Since the state's role in achieving universal citizenship paradoxically involved an individuation process whereby people were constructed in specific and distinct ways—as taxpayers, employees, and consumers—it is possible to conceptualize citizenship within this process as negotiated relations between the people and the state (see also Ong 1996: 738). This is evident in Bangladesh's First Five Year Plan (1973–1978), which recognized the ability of the country's huge workforce to mobilize resources for domestic investment and proposed employing volunteer work to leverage investment without necessarily raising the supply of wage products (GoB 1973: 67). However, the specific labor mobilization plan proclaimed: “All males of working age in the area will be required to donate a given amount of labour in a calendar year” (ibid.: 69; emphasis added). We notice that no mention of women's work was included in this vision, indicating that women's (possible) contributions to development planning were generally ignored. The contribution of women to economic activities in Bangladesh throughout the 1970s and 1980s has been shown to be within domestic production and post-harvest work in agriculture (Abdullah 1983; Abdullah and Zeidenstein 1982; Arens and van Beurden 1980; Begum 1983; Bertocci 1972; N. Chowdhury 1986; White 1992). Because of the gendered division of labor and the practice of purdah, women did not work outside the home. Consequently, women's rightful or ideal position was presented as being in the house (see Amin 1996: 189). At that point, women were not incorporated in post-independence economic development planning.

But from the middle of the 1970s onward, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) started to take initiatives to improve the lives of low-income rural women, integrating them into income-generating activities and addressing their marginalization. The primary strategy was to offer microcredit (see BRAC 2015; Grameen Bank, n.d.; M. T. Hasan 2022). NGOs sought to extend loans to persons who were not deemed creditworthy by traditional financial institutions. In order to make them creditworthy, NGOs financialized and connected people's everyday subsistence practices—husking, pottery, weaving, and sewing—to the market. Thus, they also promoted the image of women as trustworthy borrowers and entrepreneurs. An egalitarian shift toward reducing women's restricted social presence became a reality—one that was also visible in the annual reports of Grameen Bank. Beginning in 1991, the cover of these reports included photographs of rural entrepreneur women doing handicrafts, counting money, and keeping ledger books.

Aside from strengthening rural women's financial capacity through market networks, NGOs also promoted the notion of independent women and the ways to conduct themselves in the public sphere. As argued by Lamia Karim (2011: 79):

Two of the NGOs, BRAC and Proshika, have also introduced radical ideas about women's social roles. Women field-workers of these NGOs ride bicycles and motorbikes. Many of these female NGO workers have achieved limited practical freedoms. They are salaried and can use some of their income for their personal enjoyment. They live in NGO housing apart from their families, which gives them more freedom. The women also have contact with non-kin men. The NGO female workers serve as role models for rural women who see them in leadership roles with autonomy, money, and power.

While microcredit operations engaged women within the market, female NGO workers promoted new ideas about ‘womanhood’ among rural women. Subsequently, the Bangladeshi government's opinions on women's economic activity also steadily shifted: women moved from being ignored and overshadowed in early policy documents to becoming the center of economic development and egalitarian ambitions. Several layers of change overlapped here. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became drivers of economic policy changes, while the global emphasis on ‘market participation’ as the practical way toward the empowerment of marginal sections of the population was consolidated (Kabeer 2003). In addition, the government of Bangladesh was pursuing reforms aimed at reduction of subsidies, deregulation of trade, decentralization, and privatization (Feldman 1993; see also Ahasan and Gardner 2016). Hence, in the expectation of economic growth, millions of low-paid and non-farm jobs were created for women, consequently generating new social spaces for them. Here, women could assume a different social character, gesturing toward new social formations.

The Changing Imagery of the Woman

As indicated in the previous section, women's work was not considered a vital component of the country's early growth objectives until the 1980s, when waves of changes took place after the IMF and World Bank rolled out their global structural adjustment programs (SAPs). These included import liberalization, privatized grain markets, and substantial cuts to long-standing grain distribution programs (see Cabral et al. 2006; M. M. Hasan 2012; Khundker 2001). As a result, certain transformations became visible; for instance, post-harvesting tasks like husking and drying paddies were commercialized with the introduction of mechanized rice mills. Consequently, men began to engage in these tasks, which were formerly considered women's responsibilities in the household (see Arens 2011). In the social sphere, growing numbers of abandoned, separated, or divorced women, and a rising proportion of young women who remained unmarried, indexed the demotion of women's socio-cultural status due to the loss of their control over key productive and agricultural processes. Throughout those years, women's altered position was also reflected in a change where the practice of dowry gradually replaced the practice of bridewealth (McCarthy and Feldman 1985: 8; see also Huda 2006). Furthermore, the privatization of agricultural inputs, irrigation systems, and machinery had raised the production costs in agriculture and pushed many poor peasants into debt. As a result, the means of production became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthy, while peasants became impoverished owing to land loss. Land polarization due to economic and agricultural reforms—such as the so-called Green Revolution unfolding in the Bangladesh context since 1986 (see M. M. Hasan 2012)—essentially laid the foundation for NGO activities, including microcredit programs. As has been shown by Lamia Karim (2011) and Aminur Rahman (1999), the NGOs encouraged the rural poor to obtain microcredit and to participate in diverse economic activities, increasing their income by generating employment opportunities in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors and marketing.

The microcredit model of NGOs was established through the notion of entrepreneurship. Specifically, NGOs started to manifest that with microcredit support, even women could acquire some assets and become self-employed. Furthermore, women also began to sell their labor in the market, and thus activities around microcredit allowed women to leave the so-called women's sphere (Karim 2008; see also Rahman 1999). More generally, in the early 2000s, NGOs in Bangladesh worked to improve women's status, mobility, and entrepreneurship via various development projects—as exemplified by a video campaign of Plan Bangladesh (2011):

Moina was an ordinary housewife who started a new life after training as a health volunteer. She was good at teaching all the village people about health. She became the people's only hope in case of an emergency. Thus, the villagers proposed that she run for the election in the local government, and she became the people's representative in return for her social services. Moina is our pride.

Similarly, Save the Children (2011) produced a documentary featuring Shilpi, who performed the duties of a son by providing means for her family, thus breaking the stereotype of girls as burdens on the family. She was part of the cohort that received training in budgeting and saving money from Save the Children during 2008–2009. Eventually, she realized she could assist her family without leaving her house. Her first venture was to weave and sell bamboo mats. She then used her savings to purchase a cow and sell milk, and could eventually repair their house after selling a calf. The documentary ended with some messages: Shilpi would have been married off like other girls if she was not a part of the Save the Children program, and Shilpi expressed a wish both to purchase some land and for her brother to continue his education to ultimately get a job. Shilpi's mother also believed that “she had accomplished more than a son could ever do” (ibid.; italics added). As these brief examples indicate, the development vision of the state and of NGOs began to reconstitute women in Bangladesh regarding their worth in their family and in social relationships reflecting egalitarianism within the state experiments. A new form of public sphere was created whereby ‘the people’ came to be differently constructed, and some of the former established social, religious, or political orders were broken.

The flourishing export-oriented RMG sector, along with the expansion of NGOs and microcredit projects, offered a significant source of income and employment, particularly for women, and formed a crucial component of the state's development objectives (Dannecker 2002; Kabeer 2000). Since the first garment factory opened in Bangladesh in 1978–1979, the state and factory owners have also promoted the image of the woman as an industrial worker to facilitate labor supply. The Bangladeshi government emphasizes ‘productive employment’ and ‘human resource development’ as part of an effort to transform its population into assets. This agenda is also depicted on the Bangladeshi government's Ministry of Labour and Employment website, which includes photographs of a textile worker, a laborer carrying bricks, and a tea plantation worker, all women. In this depiction, women have evolved into the nation's model workers and breadwinners (Ministry of Labour and Employment n.d.). Similarly, the former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), Md Siddiqur Rahman, stated (BGEMA, n.d.c):4

Over the years the ready-made garment (RMG) industry has witnessed a steady growth, and within three decades it has become the largest export earning sector of Bangladesh, generating 80 percent of the export earnings and contributing more than 10 percent to the national GDP. The RMG sector has created employment for about 4.4 million people, of whom 80 percent are women. Apart from playing a vital role in Bangladesh's economic growth, the RMG sector has bolstered the country's image worldwide.

Here, BGMEA portrays the apparel sector as the key player in the growth of the nation's economy. If we think about the industry's strength, BGMEA provides the answer: “a vibrant population, 70 percent below 40 years [of] age, quick learning & dedicated” (BGMEA n.d.b). Such visions portray a specific kind of worker and the efforts that these workers must put into meeting production deadlines and submitting to a form of benevolent discipline. Moreover, the messages that accompanied the photographs on the website—“We are committed to ensuring the dignity and well-being and safety of our workers” and “Children can go to school today as garment factories are running successfully”—visibly represent the role these women workers played or expected to play in the new Bangladeshi economy (see BGMEA n.d.a). These visions show how the government, NGOs, large businesses, and clothing manufacturers came together to enable and endorse the idea of a New Woman—a working citizen who can simultaneously make industries, families, and the country prosperous.5

I should point out that there is a crucial paradox here. The portrayal and celebration of women and their attained or expected contribution toward the country's development—as well as the state's and BGMEA's focus on the workers’ commitment and rapid learning skills—contrast sharply with the actual circumstances of work. As I have observed, to meet shipping deadlines, garment workers must go through long days of 12 to 16 hours or more to meet so-called production targets. An RMG worker's statement during fieldwork can be used to assess the situation: “We try not to even drink water so that we do not need to go to the toilet. We do not take breaks to eat either. We have to fulfill our target” (M. T. Hasan 2022: 97; see also Bhuiyan 2012; Hossan et al. 2012; Kabeer 1991; Kabeer and Mahmud 2004; Muhammad 2011; Paul-Majumder and Sen 2001). However, as the BGMEA president said on the association's website, such production regime conditions may also demonstrate the “dedication of the worker” (BGMEA, n.d.c).

As such, one could argue that the transition toward new womanhood weakened the sovereignty of the patriarchy in the private sphere of the family and substituted it with the sovereignty of the capital/market, having effects on both the private and public spheres of the country (Karim 2008; see also Naher 2005; White 2010, 2012). These apparent shifts necessitate a closer look at the social order that has ostensibly reconstructed women's roles and personhood, granting them a status arguably on a par with men in several respects.

Garment Workers and Negotiated Social Order

In recent decades, the garment industries in Bangladesh flourished as the government pursued industrialization and, concomitantly, NGOs initiated social development opportunities, both of which combined to form a liminal space, historically speaking. Here, working women's roles in the family, factory, and the country were (re)constituted. Garment workers maneuvered within existing and emerging social structures and continuously pursued possibilities of freedom of the egalitarian kind, in a rupture from dominant relationships. The women who broke the traditional gendered spheres emerged as the joggo nari—the working woman performing roles conventionally accorded to men, in terms of income generation and taking on the responsibilities of the family. In this context, examining garment workers’ perspectives on their work, income, family ties, and usage of consumer goods reveals scenarios in which a concept such as the joggo nari generates ideologically incompatible features that refer to women who are not joggo—those who either could not take up the familial responsibility or did not assume attributes such as sacrifice, patience, or allegiance, which traditionally defined women, in constituting a temporal social whole. Drawing on fieldwork, I will show below that these events and processes give insights into the continuous formation and reformation of the social in its totalization process—including the presence of egalitarian orientations (cf. Rio and Smedal 2008: 235).

The Newly Constituted Women

Women in the transforming economy pursued what in this special issue is seen as an ‘egalitarian life’, that is, the day-to-day aspiration to establish a life free from oppressive or restrictive circumstances (social or otherwise). This unfolded at two levels for the joggo nari: first, by undertaking actions to bring back the economic stability of their households, which was directly associated with the state's aim of building a prosperous country; second, by seeking social positions to accommodate their public engagements while still aiming to appear as ‘ideal’ or ‘good’.

Generally, women's participation in paid employment is expected to transform the social structure, which may be assessed in terms of changes in their roles and responsibilities. In this respect, it has been predicted in the household economy literature that greater levels of participation of women in wage labor (e.g., in business or home enterprises) would eventually reorganize family labor resources, meaning that women who work in the garment industry would have fewer domestic responsibilities—a form of egalitarian situation where women and men are more or less equal (see Becker 1981; Karim 2014; Zohir 2001). While this may be a valid prediction at a general level, throughout my fieldwork interlocutors pointed out crucial aspects not captured by these statements. Even though male family members seldom participated in domestic work, gender roles were maintained, and women were still assumed to be in charge of domestic work. Reflecting socio-cultural ideals, the gendered difference was tied to women's roles as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters. For instance, Ayjina, one of my female interlocutors, remarked, “We have to prepare food and do all the household chores before coming to work, so sometimes I am late.” I asked, “Why do men not help with household tasks? Do you ask them to help?” She responded, “Our dhormo [religion] encourages women to do all the household work, so we tend to do it all.” In addition to Ayjina's statement, I relate an anecdote about a visit to another interlocutor's home. I had met Shah Alam, his wife, and their two daughters that afternoon in his house. I spoke with them about their weekend routines and how they balanced domestic responsibilities with their employment in the RMG sector. Shah Alam claimed that he sometimes arrived home earlier than his wife, Farhana, and that she sometimes returned home from work before him. I asked them whether they had split the household work among themselves. Farhana replied, “What household chores can a man do? It is our responsibility, and he works hard all day, so I ask him to rest.” She added that she took care of the house while at home. Ayjina's and Farhana's statements make it clear that women did not abandon their old responsibilities when they came out of the social grids they generally were relegated to. Instead, the idea of ‘women's work’ was expanded to include other income-generating activities, such as working in an RMG factory and earning money for the family.

One could claim that women broke the social conventions in trying to overcome their subordinated positions, effectively creating an egalitarian situation in which the social divisions between men and women were diminished, or at least altered or challenged. However, to varying degrees, the new social roles included the old parameters of ideal womanhood. For some, including those parameters became imperative as they started to work in garment factories with their family's consent. For example, Salma stated that she chose to work despite her family's initial opposition. The first response of her parents-in-law was: “Why would our daughter-in-law work? Women should stay at home.” Later they stopped objecting when Salma told her mother-in-law that they were unable to maintain their lifestyle with only their son's income. About the outcomes of being a garment worker and earning money, Salma said:

I could buy different household materials which I wanted, including furniture and a television, because of my earnings … Life is better from the perspective that now I can afford to get what we need, but being a mother and taking care of the children has been a tremendous pressure, working a job all day and taking care of the children afterward.

Unlike many, Salma did not have acute economic difficulties; instead, her aspirations for an ‘improved’ life—with certain forms of material comfort—informed her decision. Therefore, she also represented how the egalitarian ideals of New Women advanced by the state apparatus and NGOs gradually became integral to individual life aspirations.

Arguably, despite changes in what men and women did, the ideological divide between their perceived duties remained (see Siddiqi and Ashraf 2017). A reason for this might be traced back to the women's relationships with their broader family in which, as mentioned above, women would typically assume one or more of four roles: daughter, sister, wife, mother. Also, women normally relied more on their spouses for protection than did men: a woman was considered the husband's responsibility after marriage. The mother was the caretaker, and the father was the provider for the children (cf. Arens 2011; Jansen 1986).

In keeping with this transformation of women and the persistence of some socio-cultural ideals, almost all married female employees I observed in the field gave their wages to their spouses (for a similar argument, see M. T. Hasan 2018). One female worker said, “As long as we give them the salary we earn, they are okay with us working.” Similarly, another responded, “Those who save money for themselves are divorced or widowed. Those who stay married have put their money under their husband's name.” These remarks show that women believed it was their moral obligation to support their husbands financially and that doing so was essential to being a ‘good wife’ (valo bou). One interlocutor, Shah Alam, explained why his wife gave him all of her income: although she had the right to spend her earnings from garment work for herself, she always kept the family in mind and did not waste any of it. Contrarily, Firoz lived alone near the factory while his wife and children remained in the village. He said that whenever he received his income, he would transfer the total amount to his wife, who maintained their village house. Both Shah Alam and Firoz praised their wives, yet these women earned those honors by performing relatively contradictory roles: one worked in a garment factory while the other worked at home. For Firoz's wife, her role as the family's primary caretaker assumed precedence. Shah Alam's wife (Farhana) was honored even though she had broken with some of those parameters of the adorsho nari, or ideal woman.

Ideal womanhood, deviance from it, and egalitarianism in the process can all be understood by considering how these working women viewed their ability to earn and spend. My interlocutors often said that they could buy whatever they liked after earning money. One of the them, Shaila, firmly stated, “Now we earn cash which we can spend as we wish.” However, female garment workers always refrained from doing so, telling me, “We could do whatever we wanted with our income, but we do not.” Such statements indicate forms of ‘moral policing’ of their desires as consumers and users of money. An RMG worker said, “I cannot spend on myself because others in my family are in crisis. I feel obliged because of my conscience.” This illustrates how women workers tended not to entirely deviate from the ideal roles of daughter/sister/wife/mother. Nonetheless, they did change from being reliant on men and primary caretakers to becoming supporters and providers, shifting the balance of power within the broader family context.

The situations I came across among the garment workers differ significantly from Aminur Rahman's (1994) assertion about income generation by women. He essentially claimed that when women began to earn money, they started defying patriarchal social norms and thus became liberated: “Work gives them access to resource entitlements other than those associated with socially ascribed relations and dependence for, ‘when a woman touches the first taka [money] she has earned with her labour, she feels liberated’” (Naila Kabeer, cited in ibid.: 28). Rahman utilized the topic of women's income to show how the village's ideology in Bangladesh was challenged: its conventional power structure and authority were being defied due to the gendered division of labor. These women, therefore, as part of the state-sponsored egalitarian initiatives and with their egalitarian aspirations, arguably shattered the concept of the ideal woman (adorsho nari). In contrast, I suggest that workers’ propensities to embody the ideal woman through actions, such as making sacrifices for the family and restricting their spending, reflect a re-idealization of the category, even though these women shattered the traditional division of labor and gendered sphere of work. Consequently, I consider the changes in women's viewpoints as an ongoing totalization of the ideological whole, for example, re-enacting the idea of joggo nari (worthy woman) as the adorsho nari (ideal woman) as this corresponds to the category of valo/lokkhi meye/bou (good daughter/wife).

As a result of the availability of garment industry jobs, there was a shift that allowed women to take on the privileged role of family provider, a role previously held by men. However, this shift did not erase socio-cultural ideals of a woman's virtues, such as patience, sacrifice for family, and modesty and obedience (see Zaman 1995), which were supported by religious teachings, beliefs, societal expectations, and conventions. Women workers could still demonstrate patience and sacrifice despite moving out of their gendered location within the household. In pursuing forms of egalitarian life, these women continuously reshaped themselves, contributing to an emerging yet liminal new social formation.

Model Citizens at the Crossroads

National development programs, microcredit policies, and a long-term political shift toward private entrepreneurship have altered the narrative of poverty—entailing that the notion of ‘poor’ has become derogatory in rural Bangladesh. Before the widespread use of credit, those labeled poor were seen to have a right to the wealthy's resources through patron-client relationships. In exchange, the rural rich typically extracted free labor service and loyalty (see Breman 2000; Datta 1998; Islam 2002; Makita 2007; Mannan 2005; Rahman and Wahid 1992; Rudra 1984). However, since Grameen Bank started operating as a formal financial organization in 1983, widespread credit availability and the neoliberal ideology of self-help and individual responsibility have eroded and supplanted this long-standing patron-client relationship (see Karim 2008; Rahman and Wahid 1992).

Because of the weakening of this system and increased indebtedness, gradually, many women moved to Dhaka to work in garment factories. This impacted how migrant women garment workers saw themselves in relation to others. For example, when RMG workers complained about their difficult working circumstances, they invariably said, “We strive to support our families.” I also found garment workers saying, “I am working hard so that in the future I can live better, and my children can have a better education and hold official jobs.” Discussions with female employees indicated that, at the most basic level, all motivations came from the need to earn money that could buy ‘anything’. One of them argued, “If you can earn your status in the family [by contributing to pay microcredit debt, to buy land, or to build a new house], then the status of the family in the locality will improve.” Another garment worker said:

In the village, our family members lead happy lives. Additionally, we are living well here. We were able to enroll our kids in a reputable school. Due to our income from garment work, we could accomplish all of this … I can buy whatever my parents-in-law ask for. I can buy the things my children want. I can also buy things that I desire. I purchased a refrigerator, a new bed, and I built a new house in the village. In doing all these things, I myself have changed.

Even though she considered her preferences, she also assessed the condition of her family and what she could do for them in evaluating her worth (see also Karim 2008). Her work in the factory fostered both individuality and the collective social unit. The ‘change’ she referred to denotes a new classification and subjectivity of the woman.

Due to the possibility of earning money, garment workers aspired for a better life, and the industry gave them the means to make this goal a reality. Here, the decisions and perspectives of garment workers were consistent with the Bangladeshi nation's aim of becoming a middle-income country. However, as the material above has indicated, the corollary of state-sponsored egalitarianism—becoming joggo (worthy)—was difficult. Many women expressed that they were concerned about what people would think once they started working. However, during the economic crises their households faced, they felt obliged to act. Many of my interlocutors concluded that working outside the home should no longer be regarded as disgraceful. As far as I can tell, this mirrored a shift in my female interlocutors’ attitudes about the patriarchal gaze, a shift aided partly by the state apparatuses’ focus on women's economic participation. Furthermore, traditional purdah regulations on women working ‘outside’ the home had evolved as the demand for income and the range of career possibilities grew. While some still believe that women should not work outside the house, most people now hold that the crucial concerns are the types of employment, the nature of the workplace, and how women behave in the workplace and outside it (see also White 2010). When societal conventions of purdah could no longer be maintained in these new economic activities and spaces where women worked or were visible, alternative explanations circulated, such as “If you are good, then nothing bad can happen to you” and “If you do not harm others, you will not encounter any problems.”

Given these features, I argue that women negotiated several realities. Rather than simply improving women's conditions, the new work opportunities have pointed to a more vital structural alteration in forming gender relations—both within and outside the family. The capacity to manage old hierarchies, familial restrictions, religious codes, and patriarchy—while also maintaining an interest in the common good—appears to be a vital part of the joggo nari category, which is necessary for the new Bangladesh. As previously argued, a manifestation of the egalitarian life of these working women can be seen, first, in their aim to stabilize their households’ economic condition by becoming wage earners (e.g., garment workers). Following the state's emphasis on the economic integration of women, working women assumed different avatars in state discourses and popular media, which portrayed them as productive, quick learners, dedicated workers, and so forth. Second, in becoming the country's New Woman, these women also reconstituted the social and domestic spheres with regard to their roles and obligations in the family. Although these workers collectively suffered from capitalist exploitation and patriarchal expectations, the opportunity to work in RMG factories and earn money resulted in some relief. Either way, women transgressed the established discourses and pushed away some of the restricting barriers to women's opportunities (see also E. Chowdhury 2018; Siddiqi 2015).

In accordance with the larger perspective on egalitarianism in this special issue, one might say that these women not only implemented the state's new ideology of the model citizen, but also added some of their own desires for an egalitarian future that could not be predicted. The creation of the new category of the working woman upheld an appreciation of work life and family life as ingredients in that egalitarian desire. In this process, it also appears that these New Women are in a liminal situation in a political and historical sense. With them, a new space for ‘the people’ of Bangladesh is featured whereby women engage in urban factory work, apart from their rural agricultural family life, resulting in a new kind of person who is both a worker and a parent, both a public political subject and a civil society private person. Assuming different social positions, and generating new perspectives on life situations that did not hitherto exist, the New Woman never settles into fixed positionalities, continuously oscillating between the existing social structures.

Conclusion

No doubt, Bangladesh's ‘social engineering’ programs that aimed to create model working citizens and the NGOs that provided microcredit have boosted women's public participation and generated opportunities for women to exchange ideas. Propelled by shifting visions of labor, economic growth, and women's roles in the Bangladeshi state, the developmental campaigns also altered the discourses that shaped women's behaviors. Furthermore, they provided new ways for women to think about themselves, generating innovative types of egalitarian desires, including aspirations to free themselves from social conventions and hierarchies that were seen as repressive. As I have shown, the results of these aspirations for an egalitarian life through wage labor were mixed. For some, such wage labor counteracted poverty and allowed women to enter the world of the cash economy and consumerism. For others, it simply became a manner to improve their households’ potential to reach or sustain middle-class interests and objectives.

As a paradoxical egalitarian figure, the joggo nari—free from patron-client obligations and patriarchal cultural institutions—has played an essential role in the flourishing RMG sector and the economy. Yet, as is also established in this special issue's introduction, egalitarian categories, such as New Men and Women, are always impacted by particular socio-political circumstances and are therefore neither free nor equal in an absolute sense. This is also the case with the joggo nari: she represents value configurations in society and is not a ‘free’ working individual per se, but can instead be analyzed as a thoroughly reoriented human being within an emergent and thus liminal social order. As such, the egalitarian life that can be glimpsed in the narratives and statements in this article point toward the horizons of possibility and aspiration that emerge even within a context as politicized, economically marginalized, and exposed to ever-shifting policies and popular cultural inputs as that of female garment workers.

Acknowledgments

The article grows from the author's 2018 PhD project, “Industry, Work, and Capitalism in Bangladesh: An Ethnography of Neoliberalism in the Asian Tiger Economy.” It was part of the ERC Advanced Grant titled “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons,” which ran from 2014 to 2019 and was led by Bruce Kapferer. This project also received financial support from the Meltzer Research Fund and the Fredrik Barth–Sutasoma/University of Bergen Fellowship in Social Anthropology. The author thanks the anonymous reviewers and the editors of Social Analysis for their comments.

Notes

1

For instance, see the Facebook video posted in 2018 by the WEF, https://www.facebook.com/worldeconomicforum/videos/10155301282766479/?t=14. See also Basu (2018).

2

Bangladesh is considered part of the greater Bengal region, which also includes West Bengal, Tripura, Jharkhand, and parts of Southern Assam and East and Central Bihar, as well as Bengali-speaking parts of Myanmar (see van Schendel 2005). Historically, it has been labeled as one of the prosperous regions in the Indian sub-continent, drawing from afar for the purposes of business and travel. However, Bangladesh had lost prominence due to conflicts and its post-colonial economy (Kabeer 2000: 56).

3

I conducted fieldwork during 2015–2016 and early 2018, in a garment factory situated on the outskirt of the capital Dhaka and the surrounding areas. These garment workers were mostly migrants from different parts of the country, and their primary motivation was to stabilize their family's economic conditions (see M. T. Hasan 2022).

4

The BGMEA recently launched a new website, and some of the statements that appear on it are different from the older versions cited in this article.

5

See, for instance, the following YouTube videos (accessed 25 July 2018): a UNICEF Bangladesh production “Meena: Count Your Chicken” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zW9vHP5GHPE); a Screaming Girl ad for Bangladesh's Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17O62HGxhXU); and a video supporting “Women Empowerment in Bangladesh” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rujN1WtDog).

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Contributor Notes

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Bergen. His research interests include minority and ethnic groups, gender relations, collective action, anthropology of work, state formation, political economy, and egalitarianism. ORCID-ID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-4954-2321. E-mail: tareq.hasan@du.ac.bd

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  • Abdullah, Tahrunnessa Ahmed. 1983. Report on Homestead Agricultural Production in Rural Bangladesh. Dhaka: Ford Foundation.

  • Abdullah, Tahrunnessa Ahmed, and Sondra A. Zeidenstein. 1982. Village Women of Bangladesh: Prospects for Change. New York: Pergamon Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ahasan, Abu, and Katy Gardner. 2016. “Dispossession by ‘Development’: Corporations, Elites and NGOs in Bangladesh.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal 13: 117. https://doi.org/10.4000/samaj.4136.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Begum, Saleha. 1983. Women and Rural Development in Bangladesh. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cabral, Lídia, Colin Poulton, Steve Wiggins, and Linxiu Zhang. 2006. “Reforming Agricultural Policy: Lessons from Four Countries.” Working Paper No. 002, Future Agricultures Consortium, University of Sussex. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/19918065.pdf.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chowdhury, Elora Halim. 2018. “Made in Bangladesh: The Romance of the New Woman.” In Rethinking New Womanhood: Practices of Gender, Class, Culture and Religion in South Asia, ed. Nazia Hussein, 4770. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chowdhury, Nuimuddin. 1986. “Revaluation of Women's Work in Bangladesh.” Bangladesh Journal of Agricultural Economics 9 (1): 128. https://doi.org/10.22004/ag.econ.208362.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dannecker, Petra. 2002. Between Conformity and Resistance: Women Garment Workers in Bangladesh. Dhaka: University Press Limited.

  • Datta, Anjan Kumar. 1998. Land and Labour Relations in South-West Bangladesh: Resources, Power and Conflict. New York: St. Martin's Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Feldman, Shelley. 1993. “Contradictions of Gender Inequality: Urban Class Formation in Contemporary Bangladesh.” In Gender and Political Economy: Explorations of South Asian Systems, ed. Alice W. Clark, 215245. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Garber, Jonathan. 2017. “There Could be a New ‘Asian Tiger’. Here's Why.” World Economic Forum, 11 April. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/04/bangladesh-could-be-a-new-asian-tiger-heres-why.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gilbert, Paul Robert. 2018. “Class, Complicity, and Capitalist Ambition in Dhaka's Elite Enclaves.” Focaal 81: 4357. https://doi:10.3167/fcl.2018.810104.

    • Search Google Scholar
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