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Garment workers walking home after a day of work. Photo: Tanvir Ahammed/bdnews24.com, 2013.

Sex, garment industry and social revolution

Kayes Ahmed

Dear reader, I will credit the fact that you are reading this rant to the word sex, no? So anyway, I was in Dhaka last month and having coffee (yes coffee not Dudh Cha as should have been the case) with a couple of friends and one of my old friends says the country as a whole has become promiscuous and this evil is led by the garment girls. He was visibly upset about the prospect of the “garment girls” having sex at will and making Bangladesh an unsavoury place. This is the same guy who was a leader of the counter-culture trend in the seventies. If you wanted a little Ganja, there was the Awlia who could provide that to you. About the same time I got a note from an editor at bdnews24 saying he has heard that garment workers are far more “liberal” in their societal attitude than the upper classes and this fact astonishes him. What did I think of that? Of course by “liberal” he means someone with a somewhat easier attitude towards sex and sexuality. The whole issue took an interesting turn when my partner Gerdur (who is an Icelandic woman) said that she finds that Bengali society cannot make faster progress because there has not been a period of enlightenment where the women are set free to put their creative energies to the task and happiness. She should know, she has done business in Iceland, USA and China and has seen the social attitudes that can confine and/or free people up close and personal. Has there been a profound change in the Bangladeshi society? And if so, can the changes evolve and make for a more powerful society without the predictable backlash from the, um, anxious class, or can the changes take place even with the backlash? My friend, the aforementioned Awlia, belongs to this Anxious Class. They are hypervigilant about any slight ‘degradation’ of the perceived decorum at personal as well as societal levels. They are not mullahs in that they do not want to get us back to Middle Ages with the hand cutting and head chopping. But they would like us to get back to the Nineteen-fifties when everyone knew their places and no one dared to misbehave (sic) in public. I still remember the days when the middle classes would need a rickshaw to get to the next house for the sake of modesty and keeping their relative positions intact in a world where your position was fixed and you did everything to preserve it. Besides that, everyone was watching for any indiscretion. The Bengali phrase looking out to see if “paan theke chun khose”. As a footnote, I do not think the truly rich and the upper classes care about what the rest of the world thinks, neither do the lumpen proletarians.-Oh, how the world has changed! The National Public Radio (NPR) did an actual multi-part story about the journey of a T-shirt from the cotton fields of southern USA through the hands of Bangladeshi garments workers to the backs of their rather high-browed listeners. The project generated some $625,000 in gross sales and is probably one of wildest success stories in the history of T-shirt making and selling. But, the real story was one of the societal changes and aspirations of the Bangladeshi “garment girls” that this project unveiled. It would do all of you a world of good if you actually listen to the related podcasts. You can find the links to the podcasts here.What NPR chronicled with their podcasts is the story of two sisters, Minu and Shumi, which is nothing short of a quiet but profound social revolution that is going on in Bangladesh and which has shaken the well-pickled world view of the Anxious Class. I invite you to listen at least to the podcast about Minu and Shumi. In a nutshell they traced the girls’ lives from their village to the garment factory in Chittagong.As usual they grew up in a Bangladeshi village amid poverty. Three elder sisters of Minu and Shumi died before they reached age of seven. The “garment girls” remember being hungry all the time and not having much to eat. Now these two women work in garment factories. They send money back home and they are “bread winners” for the whole extended family. The parents can afford to cook chicken and eat much better food because of the “garment girls”.The changes, however, are far more pervasive than just a change of economic conditions. The family married the older sister Minu off as a teenager. She is like so many other Bangladeshi girls who get married off early because the families look at girls as burdens. Bangladesh has the highest child marriage rate in all of South Asia. That was the reality before the low wage garment industry came to town.Minu was married off to a quintessential, entitled Bangladeshi male. She thinks the marriage destroyed her life, because she has now seen the other side of life. She said to the NPR reporters, “I am not capable of forgiving my parents because they just destroyed my life”. That assertion can only come from someone who has tasted economic freedom and the lifting of the cultural oppression that comes with economic freedom.The real tectonic shift is taking place with women like Shumi, the younger sister. She works at a garment factory. She has a boyfriend who  also works there. They go on dates and do things together. She worries that she may never be able to marry the boyfriend because he is a Hindu. Her family disapproves of her liberated views of relationships and that includes her older sister Minu as well.Just 10 years ago Shumi’s fate would have been sealed in the village by the extended family and village mullahs. She would have been married off to live out her life in quiet desperation producing lots of babies without a clue about desire, sexuality and intimacy. That is not happening to her today and that is the profound social change that is sweeping Bangladesh. What the Anxious Class disapproves of is the women’s ability to defy social norms and seek out happiness even though the happiness comes with terrible working conditions and the tragedies like the Rana Plaza collapse. On the whole, the changes are unstoppable, regardless of the whining by the Anxious Class and the spasms of violence by the mullahs and the Jihadists.These changes are coming from the freedom that comes with the sweat and the pride of work. As long as the women can work and earn a living wage they will change Bangladesh for better and forever.I hope that Bangladesh will soon have many more Shumis who are striving for the happiness and freedom amid bone crunching poverty. Admittedly they are still poor but compared to the lives lived in the villages and under the thumbs of the Anxious and religious Classes theirs is a lesser poverty of both the mind and the body.My advice to the Anxious Class, “get used” to a more sexually and socially curious women of Bangladesh led by the “Garment Girls”. I look forward to the new and improved land of my fathers.-

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