UNESCO Courier

Pride without prejudice

Pride without prejudice – South Asian women

Anees Jung

* “I have a better life today than I did when my husband was alive,” said Zapathan. A statement like this from a Muslim widow in Bangladesh would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, and I was taken by surprise when Zapathan made it. Sitting on a wobbly chair, her feet twisted in plastic sandals that did not match, she uttered the words without a trace of guilt or embarrassment. The thought that she was dishonouring a very old tradition did not seem to worry her. She had expressed a truth that thousands of impoverished women in Bangladesh are beginning to share, though few have yet begun to voice.

Bangladesh a merry widow

Zapathan lives in a tiny village in Mirzapur. I met her on the premises of the Grameen Bank’, where a group of needy women had gathered to collect a modest loan that would help them start a small business, repair a leaking roof or educate a child. The Grameen Bank’s revolutionary lending system ensures that husbands, sons or fathers are no longer necessary to help women procure money. A thumb mark that once labelled a woman as backward is today the signature that gets her a loan. It is the first step that leads her to write her own name.

“No one asked me my name before,” said Zapathan, saying her name with pride. “While my husband lived, I was his wife, his follower. His word was law.” Her husband’s law, like that of a king, prevailed in a domain where he had little to protect except a wife. It made her helpless, faceless. Not even the neighbours were aware of her existence. His death opened the door, brought her out of her house and her village and led her to the Grameen Bank, which has helped her more than any relative would have done.

“Those unknown men to whom I could not even talk trusted me and gave me a loan. When I first held 500 takes, my hands trembled.” She raised her hand in a salute, a gesture that spoke of power.

India: access to credit

The Working Women’s Forum in Madras, South India, all of whose members are needy working women, is driven by the same spirit as the Grameen Bank. As well as providing loans, the Forum organizes training and consciousness-raising activities, night schools for children, and family planning and health-care programmes. It encourages inter-caste marriages and helps fight exploitation, harassment and government obstructionism.

In the last ten years, as the movement has spread, the courage and commitment of its members have grown and they have begun to speak out in public and become leaders. They have learnt to stand up to policemen, government officials, even cabinet ministers. “Why not husbands?” I asked a group of them. They laughed and slowly told me their fears. “He drinks and beats me,” said one. “Why don’t you hit him back?” I asked provocatively. “That’s not our Tamil tradition,” she answered. “Why does he beat you?” I asked. “Because he earns,” she replied. “But you earn too”. “He earns more.” “If my husband did that to me, I would leave him,” said a dark young woman who was not yet married. “You can’t divorce and marry again,” said the older woman. “No, I won’t remarry. I will take a job and bring up my children,” answered the young woman. “I thought wisdom came with age,” the old woman sighed. “Now the young ones know better than the old ones like me.”

“The time is not far off when donkeys will neigh and women will demand to sit on chairs,” said a village elder in Gujarat, western India, as he pulled at his hubble bubble.

Pakistan: urbanization, the motor of change

“Change is coming, and it is coming faster than people think,” says Akhtar Hameed, the architect of the Orangi Pilot Project in Karachi, Pakistan. “Under the pressure of mass migration to the cities and double-digit inflation the role of women is changing dramatically. Urbanization changes attitudes and breaks up traditions. Since one income is no longer enough, women have begun to work. The extended family is already beginning to yield to the nuclear family. With women having jobs and education becoming imperative, the rate of population growth is bound to slow down. This will happen in urban areas first, then spread to the villages. It is only a matter of time. What is happening in Orangi is happening everywhere.”

Orangi encourages women not to be dependent and urges them to turn their homes into workshops. Family businesses sprout in every lane, and women have begun to be entrepreneurs. The Orangi Trust gives loans to units where 40 per cent of the workers are women. Almost 350 units are managed entirely by women, including stitching centres, general stores, schools, clinics, beauty parlours and embroidery workshops. A recent survey of 585 of Orangi’s schools showed that 45 per cent of the 80,000 students were girls. Almost 90 per cent of Orangi’s schools are co-educational, and 68 per cent of the teachers are female. “These women and girls,” says Akhtar Hameed, “are not in purdah as my mother was. And yet they retain their modesty and their culture. Although they are not wrapped in the chador or confined within four walls, their conduct is not very different from my mother’s. Women who belong both to the present and the past, they are the finest achievement of Orangi.”

Nepal: the burden of tradition

The image of Nepali rural women that remains in my mind is that of a creature under a basket of hay or manure, a metaphor that goes beyond her working life. “Women have yet to learn to articulate their feelings and anxieties,” says Greta Ran, who has launched a magazine about women and called it “Donkey”, to match her perception of the peasant woman as a beast of burden. Greta Ran feels that women are conditioned to be silent beasts of burden and that if they begin to have individual feelings they suffer from a sense of guilt.

Indira Koirala, who works with village women at the grassroots level and has just launched a self-reliance project, does not agree. “Women are acquiring the confidence to change their work patterns but not their lives,” she says. “They still can’t survive independently. They need more time.” Since her project began, she has seen a change in them. When a group is formed and given a name, the women feel they have found an identity. They are no longer just wives or mothers; they have the status of members of a group.

“Change is inevitable,” said an old Nepali woman named Aama, the Nepali word for “mother”. “Even the trails of my youth have changed. I have seen streams and rivers change their courses.” Poor and uneducated, she has watched the ebb and flow of life, not without some regrets. The young, she complains, are learning to read and write, but they have lost the gift of knowing that comes from living close to nature, close to tradition.

A shared vision

In Sri Lanka too, where the government and several non-governmental agencies have set up credit and savings societies that are managed and controlled by women, more economic power is coming into the hands of women via small-scale loans. The Janashakti Bank, like the Grameen Bank, distributes loans to groups of five women, each of whom is responsible for maintaining the group’s credit. Janashakti too has a payback rate of nearly 95 per cent.

In South Asia women who were afraid even of each other are beginning to share their condition and seek a shared vision. They are forming new groups. The old beliefs no longer correspond to life as it is, and as women seek to renew them they are embarking on a journey along a path to self-discovery.


COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group