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The Aid LabUnderstanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success$

Naomi Hossain

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780198785507

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: March 2017

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198785507.001.0001

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The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargain and the Emergence of the ‘Woman Issue’

The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargain and the Emergence of the ‘Woman Issue’

(p.75) 4 The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargain and the Emergence of the ‘Woman Issue’
The Aid Lab

Naomi Hossain

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 4 explores the origins of Bangladesh’s relatively advanced policies regarding women in the development project, which it traces to the perception that the economic basis for customary gender relations had broken down irretrievably in the wake of the war and the famine. The break had its roots in a longer process of agrarian crisis, but was triggered in particular by mass wartime rapes and the emergence of a distinct population of women without male protection in the early 1970s. Following Deniz Kandiyoti, this moment of rupture is analysed as the ‘breaking of the patriarchal bargain’. From this moment, several of the key orientations towards gender-aware public policies and programmes emerged.

Keywords:   patriarchal bargain, gender relations, rape in war, citizenship, agrarian change, purdah, masculinities, Women in Development, Vulnerable Group Development, social protection

The human-development advances of the first forty years could never have been possible if the mass of rural women had stayed as secluded, excluded from paid work, unschooled, and without control over their fertility or health, as they were before independence. But the crisis events of the 1970s brought about an abrupt break in the already weakening patriarchal bargain.1 Out of the devastation of the period, and partly in an effort to demonstrate the modernist credentials of the new state, ‘the woman issue’ came to be viewed as both an urgent and an actionable problem. The ideological space and resourcing generated by this new view of women allowed state, market, aid, and civil society actors to dream up new ways of working with them, many of which were later exported elsewhere. Some of these ideas and interventions were coercive and controlling; many aligned with or actively shaped women’s own interests and desires.

By recognizing women’s issues as matters for public policy, Bangladesh was relatively advanced compared to other low-income post-colonial states. The demands of foreign aid helped draw political elite attention to the connections between gender and the reproduction of poverty (Nazneen et al. 2011, 31) and to making public finance at least partly dependent on attention to matters of gender (see Nazneen 2009). But in key respects, aid agencies were pushing on—or walking through—a door that had already been opened by the crises of the 1970s:2


The first half of the seventies in many ways marked a watershed in attempts to deal with women’s issues…a gradual dawning of awareness among women themselves of the unequal social relationships in which their lives were embedded. For poorer women, the upheavals which marked the early years of the decade (the cyclone of 1970, the War of Liberation of 1971, the famine of 1974) may have merely confirmed what they already knew: in times of crisis, women are the earliest casualties. (Kabeer 1988, 110)

The old patriarchal bargain had worked well enough so long as the rural economy supported livelihoods secure enough to protect women against hunger, disaster, and exposure. Kabeer points out that the series of crises showed that the women of Bangladesh were no longer (if they ever had been) guaranteed such protection, shifting middle-class attitudes so that the women’s movement in particular came to see the concerns of the average Bangladeshi woman as inseparable from its own (1988).

The events of the 1970s did not cause the break, but they dramatized the slow-onset crisis engulfing the agrarian system on which customary patriarchy depended, hastening the inducement of institutional change in gender relations (Kynch 1998; Kynch 1997; also Ruttan and Hayami 1984). On the ruins of the old bargain, Bangladeshi women were gradually incorporated in a more public, citizen-like role, included within the social contract in their own right instead of via the borrowed citizenship implied by the sexual contract (Pateman 1988). The enlargement of the customary domains of women’s lives not only brought them out of purdah; it also brought problems of security and survival out of their familial and reproductive domains and into the public sphere, complicating the boundaries of politics and government. Women’s citizenship rests largely on their status as mothers of the nation, current or future, but this nonetheless means they are seen as citizens with substantial and important interests, concerns, rights, and political leverage (Werbner 1999). Like other states in an era of globalization, Bangladesh needed to transform the population to make it more amenable to government; in this the interests of mothers and the state had to align, so that bodies and behaviours could be measured, monitored, and transformed to meet the needs of the national project.

4.1 The Weakening Agrarian Basis

The patriarchal bargain had been in decline for some time before the crises of the 1970s so dramatically highlighted its breakdown (Kabeer et al. 2011). (p.77) Across their lifetimes, the women of this part of Bengal had customarily moved from father’s house to husband’s, depending entirely for protection and support on lifelong good relations with in-laws and bearing sons who survived into adulthood (Kabeer et al. 2011). The ideal-typical patriarchal bargain in the Bengal Delta had exchanged protection of women against hunger, exposure, and violence for their reproductive and rice-processing labour, as well as their adherence to social norms of seclusion and sexual purity. Women were—and still are—married as minors.3 They all but universally moved to their husband’s house and lived in extended family arrangements where they cared for the present and produced the next generation; they also supplied the extensive but invisible labour for post-harvest paddy processing. In return, women expected to be fed and protected against violence and insult; higher-status women could expect to be withdrawn from physical labour and secluded within the house; when widowed (as was common, because husbands were much older), or divorced, women hoped to be looked after by sons or brothers. Daughters relinquished their claims on paternal property in return for the promise of being cared for by brothers, if their husbands failed to protect them. Practices of seclusion and veiling, glossed as purdah or ‘curtain’, ensured women’s sexual purity by curtailing their movements and delimiting their relationships.4

4.2 Negotiating Purdah

The patriarchal bargain never covered all women. Poor widows and others without male protection were always given latitude to labour for wages, albeit at the starvation wages afforded by labour-market segregation and gender (p.78) seclusion.5 But impoverishment, landlessness, and the commodification of paddy production6 undercut the material basis of the patriarchal bargain for even those women who could have expected male protection; these processes, we saw previously, had been underway since at least the mid-twentieth century, and probably far longer. Population pressure and landlessness (Greeley 1983), nucleation of the peasant family (Cain et al. 1979), ecological disasters (Feldman and McCarthy 1983a), and the immiserization that accompanied a precariously commodifying agrarian economy (Adnan 1993; Feldman 2001) contributed to a situation in which it became impossible to hold men to the bargain:

The kinship, political, and religious institutions that support male dominance and authority remain strong and intact, while the associated sanctions that ensure that males carry out their responsibilities to women have weakened. With the pressure of increasing poverty, this outcome is predictable, since male authority has a material base while male responsibility is normatively controlled. Normative control, while powerful, is nevertheless relatively malleable in the face of economic necessity. (Cain et al. 1979, 410)

Poor, unprotected women had little recourse in this context of broken bargains. But the relative malleability of normative control gave them one weapon: they could break purdah if that were necessary to survive, by reference to the ‘natural laws’ of necessity. As one woman summarized the corollary of the broken bargain: ‘If my husband/family/community cannot feed me, who are they to say I cannot work?’ (Feldman 2001, 1115). Statements of this kind can be found in much of the literature on purdah and poverty (for instance, World Bank 2007).

There are several aspects to the manipulation or renegotiation of the institution of purdah. First, the case had to be made to establish a norm respecting women’s rights to bare survival. The pioneering early twentieth-century North Bengali feminist author Rokeya Hossain wrote of the obsession with purdah in her stories of The Secluded Ones, where she observed the fatal irony that to Muslim society, women’s bodies were worth less alive and unveiled than dead but covered. Even in arguing for the right to ‘come out’ on grounds of bare survival, Bangladeshi women were pushing boundaries. It had to be demonstrated that the failure to protect women was more socially costly than (p.79) the effects of broken purdah. These were among the lessons of the rape, destitution, and social breakdown of the 1970s.

Second, while the bargain was often broken, no better system of protection replaced it. The social protection and poverty reduction programmes since the 1970s represent aspects of that system under construction. But these are at best a patchy system that could never match the total protections (and affections, and controls) of a financially solvent father or husband. Few Bangladeshi women are able to entirely dispense with male protection, so even when the bargain was so fundamentally broken, women still adhered to some version of the norms of seclusion that afforded ‘symbolic shelter’ (Papanek 1973).

Third, when broken en masse, it became necessary to reinterpret the norm, to make paid work outside the home compatible with good womanhood. Within a generation or two, an apparently rock-hard patriarchal principle was perceptibly softened. By the 1990s, women threw a dupatta or sari anchol over their head as a nod to modesty norms, and it was enough to permit them to move about their business with only the aggravations of sexual harassment to deter them. Many now invest in the apparently orthodox, but in fact mobility-enhancing, burka; middle-class professionals adapt this further by wearing a white jacket that mimics a lab-coat and clearly signals professional-woman-at-work. The adoption of the hijab probably signals the global politics of Islam more than a renegotiation of purdah, but it nonetheless lets women combine personal freedom with the respectability that comes with overt religiosity (see also Rozario 2006). Many Bangladeshi women now talk of purdah as an internal condition that governs personal behaviour, but has little to do with outward appearances. Elora Shehabuddin detects a ‘subaltern rationality’ in how women define purdah as ‘a state of mind, a purity of thought, something that they carry inside them rather than an expensive outer garment, [which] permits these women to present and even see themselves as pious Muslims yet leaves them free to meet the basic needs of survival’ (2008, 4). In this remarkable feat of ideational engineering, the contemporary practice of purdah seeks the symbolic shelter of personal modesty, while confidently carving out a feminine public space. Rokeya Hossain’s stories of burqas that strangulate their wearers read now as tragicomedies of an almost unimaginable past.

4.3 Rape, Masculinities, and the ‘Spectral Wound’ of Nationhood

Women may well have stayed bound by the terms of the broken patriarchal bargain had the crises of the 1970s not dramatized its failures so powerfully. (p.80) The spectre of large numbers of poor women who had been displaced, widowed or abandoned, raped, or made destitute as a result of cyclone, war, or famine highlighted the need for a new social contract in which women had alternatives to reliance on male relations. This created the space for public action to promote livelihoods and protect against the risks inherent in the life-cycle. It also eased the proscription of women’s mobility and paid work, even if the stigma of physical labour and male resistance to women in public space has not disappeared. For better or worse, it implied a transfer of last-resort responsibility for protection of women from family and community men to the state.

Mass wartime rapes both dealt a blow to the presumption of women’s sexual purity and set a precedent in state intervention into the private domains of women’s bodies and reproductive capacities. An accepted estimate is that between 200,000 and 400,000 women were raped during the war of independence in 1971, from which 25,000 forced pregnancies resulted (D’Costa 2014a).7 Most were by Pakistani soldiers, but other men also took the opportunity to rape during the upheaval (D’Costa 2014b; Saikia 2011; also Mohaiemen 2011; Mookherjee 2015). Unknown numbers of women and children, possibly in their thousands, were kept in rape camps during the conflict, but most were attacked at home, some in front of their families and communities. Some were later killed, but there are reasons to believe that the Pakistani army internally justified its campaign of rape—an unusually excessive episode of mass sexual violence during war—with the ethnic-cleansing or genocidal intent of ‘improving’/Islamicizing the bloodline of Bengalis. The total stigma of rape in a sociocultural system centred on women’s sexual purity meant women tried to conceal the crimes they had endured, or face rejection by families unable to cope with the shame. Some hanged themselves with their own hair (D’Costa 2014a).

The effects of this deep psychic trauma have often been seen as a ‘spectral wound’ (Mookherjee 2015) to the national body rather than harm to the women themselves: ‘Women’s experiences of sexual violence during the war were, until very recently, largely depicted in the language of loss or harm to the nation, and an assault on the community’s izzat (honour)’ (D’Costa and Hossain 2010, 332).

The campaign of war rapes signalled that women’s bodies were ‘territories to be occupied, marked or claimed for masculine rule’ (D’Costa 2014b, 469), and (p.81) were accordingly emasculating for Bengali men (also Mookherjee 2008). The ambivalent public discourse of the war rapes stems from the wounds they inflicted on Bengali masculinities. The Mujib government attempted to rehabilitate the survivors by declaring them birangona8 or war-heroines, encouraging society to see their ‘sacrifice’ as equaling those of men on the battlefield. They were honoured and shamed, silenced but graphically displayed, euphemized and ‘aestheticized’. Rape victims were depicted as despoiled beauties, with ‘loose hair, threaded [groomed] brows and large eyes’ (Mookherjee 2011, S79). The ambivalence extended to the governmental domain: the rapes were enumerated and the numbers used politically, yet records were destroyed so that verification was impossible. Sheikh Mujib’s reported statements that rape pregnancies should be aborted or adopted abroad to keep out their ‘polluted blood’ contrasted with (what was on the face of it, and in intention) a progressive effort to valorize rape survivors to integrate them into the nation, going against prevalent social norms to do so (D’Costa 2014a).

These ‘aestheticizing’ tendencies depicted women’s rapes as the rape of the nation, so that the recovery and rehabilitation of raped womanhood became equated with national reconstruction. With the nation as the raped mother, the state was transformed from jackbooted authoritarian to benevolent patriarch; the public discourse of the war rapes was operationalized in nation- and state-building agendas around the protection of women as bearers of future citizens:

The imagery of the mother as the innocent victim, caring, nurturing, compassionate, desexualized, of whose pure womb sons are born to further the cause of the nation, provides a powerful underpinning for the state to see itself as a caring parent, concerned for the fate and future of its citizens. It is this concern that makes it necessary for the state to rehabilitate and ‘normalize’ the raped women—to recover the mothers of its future citizens. (Mookherjee 2008, 49)

Imagining the nation as a mother figure further provides a powerful underpinning for the state to see itself as a patriarch, responsible for its citizens. The state in this sense is essentially masculine, but also welcomes tenderness and emotion.

(D’Costa 2014b, 463)

The mass wartime rapes were one-off crises9 from which gender relations could, in principle, have recovered, and there are signs that the immediate (p.82) post-war period was a time when old patriarchal controls were, or were trying to, reassert themselves. In Our War, a documentary about women’s experiences of 1971 by historian Afsan Chowdhury, one woman commented that the war should have changed men’s attitudes towards women because they saw what women were capable of; instead they got worse—behaviour she would protest till she dies, she said (Chowdhury 2001). If men wanted to try to reestablish their old rights in that moment, then they had women’s hard-won new awareness to contend with.

4.4 Institutional Legacies of Wartime Rape

Beyond the public discussion of the erstwhile unspeakable crime of rape, itself a profound change in a closed and private society, the violence of the war left two institutional and programmatic legacies. The first was that many hundreds of thousands, and very likely millions, of women and children were left without male protection or support. We know this because of the million or more who died or were disabled in the conflict, a high proportion would have been adult men (see Curlin, Chen, and Hussain 1976). Many of the thousands of women who ‘came out’ to work on public works schemes after the famine were probably widowed or became household heads as a result of the war. Afsan Chowdhury’s film documents the tough lives led by women in this situation, recording their assessment that little was done to help them and their sense that someone, preferably the state they sacrificed to bring about, should have acted to support them. The war left a discernible population of women without reliable male support—a group for whom the old patriarchal bargain had, visibly, nothing to offer. These women had expectations of the new state for which they had sacrificed so much, and were disappointed by what the new state had to offer.10

Despite women’s disappointment with their state, the war rapes saw the start of public services that intervened specifically on the ground of the old patriarchal bargain. In the immediate aftermath of the war these were a limited range of emergency services related chiefly to the rapes. They included schemes under the National Board of Bangladesh Women’s Rehabilitation Programme to get women re-integrated into society through marriage or by equipping them with skills to earn a living. Unsurprisingly, given the social (p.83) stigma of rape, few women came forward to claim the privileges accorded those with official birangona status (compared to the thousands who claimed to have been muktijoddha or freedom fighters). But this was a sign that the ‘newly formed state became responsible for making these women available to the nation, “returning” them and “protecting” them from the assumed prevalence of “Muslim” traditions and taboos’ (Mookherjee 2007, 342). There was a temporary suspension of the law against abortion to permit a programme of abortion on an almost industrial scale, in part about ‘protecting’ women ‘from the emotions of motherhood so that they could return to society’ (Mookherjee 2007, 339). A temporary law (the Bangladesh Abandoned Children (Special Provision) Order of 1972) permitted international adoptions of the babies from pregnancies too advanced for abortion, or for other reasons brought to term but not kept by the mother (Mookherjee 2007). This last was also about protection, this time of children who were otherwise vulnerable to abandonment or trafficking (Chowdhury 2015), but it was also about ridding the country of the offspring of Pakistani rapists.

Each of these actions reversed the old logics of the patriarchal bargain. The first authorized women’s independence from (family) men; the second prevented women from mothering; the third removed children from their society. The laws on abortion and adoption were temporary—as Mookherjee observes, a classic example of Agamben’s ‘state of exception’, operating as ‘the legal form of what cannot have legal form’ (Agamben 2005, 1). No written law permitting abortion was possible as the constitution was not ratified till October 1972, and the lack of written law and the destruction of documentary records reflect the fact that later-term abortion is again illegal in Bangladesh.11 But while these events took place within the state of exception, their effects have been enduring in their implications for society. These are most direct for the individual members directly affected, but also evident in how they shaped institutions and inclinations of the state to intervene in ‘family’ matters, and therefore in the relationship between women citizens and state.

The effects of the overall effort to reintegrate the survivors of rape were mixed. The interventions are often seen as having been disempowering, intended to force women back into some kind of socially acceptable settlement by ‘taking away women’s agency, transgressing their humanity and transforming them into bodies that were manipulated so that men would (p.84) not have to deal with the unhappy reminders of the past’ (Saikia 2011, 168). The ambivalence with which the efforts were made reflects the fact that this was more than merely a matter of rescuing citizens from harm: in symbolic terms, the foundational institutions of family, private property, and inheritance ultimately rested on women’s sexual purity. Practically and conceptually, the social order depended on the restoration of sexual order (see Ortner 1978). But Bangladeshi society could never return to its pre-war condition, and the rape rehabilitation interventions required something new of the beleaguered state. It responded as well as might have been expected under the conditions. To the extent that these interventions marked a transfer of the responsibility to protect from society to state, and certainly within a liberal political framework, they can be regarded as progressive. Efforts to valorize and rehabilitate women were intended to signal modernity and progressive thinking (Mookherjee 2008); and in some respects these efforts were pioneering. D’Costa and Hossain argue that the ‘interventions were ahead of their time, providing women with much needed support and solidarity and critical material assistance which helped them rebuild their lives’ (2010, 342). In a continuing theme of the export of ideas and technologies of government, the legal provisions for dealing with the aftermath of the rapes have been seen as precursors to international legislation on forced pregnancy after wartime rapes in contexts like 1990s Bosnia (Mookherjee 2007, 342). Naila Kabeer (1988) argues that although in practice in the early years after independence, policy on women was mainly limited to conventional instrumental treatment of women’s bodies as sites for fertility control, the commitment to secularism created more ideological space for a struggle for women’s rights than had been possible before.

It could even be said that Bangladesh’s role as the world’s aid lab started in the effort to handle the wartime rapes. Several international NGOs and agencies got their start working on the sensitive matter of reproduction in Bangladesh at this time. ‘Travelling’ methods of abortion like menstrual regulation were developed under these sad ‘laboratory’ conditions, and later used elsewhere.12 Without the desperate need to rehabilitate women after the war, the poverty and social protection programmes and fertility control and reproductive health schemes for which the Bangladesh government and NGOs are now seen as pioneers may not have had such a receptive environment.

(p.85) 4.5 ‘The Woman Issue’ in Development

While Bangladeshi society was struggling with the implications of post-war devastation in the 1970s, the world of aid was starting to discover the potential role of Women in Development. Just as the country served as a testing ground for experiments in development, it has been on Bangladeshi women’s bodies and in their lives that technologies from reproductive devices to financial services and modes of public service delivery have been devised and refined in the name of development. In its early years, the concerns of the aid industry could seem oddly disconnected from the visceral pain of a society putting itself back together after a bloody struggle, depicting Bangladeshi society as

a strange political void where the concern became to teach village women to read, write, sew, embroider, knit, weave, appreciate the value of eating low-status vegetables and fish, and become small-scale agricultural entrepreneurs, even while the country was busy abandoning thousands of innocent rape victims, victims of the 1971 War of Liberation in the notion that they were ‘polluted’.

(Alam and Matin 1984, 2)

In how it presented issues of women and gender in the early post-independence years, much of the literature is, as Alam and Matin argue, oddly detached from history and politics and focused on understanding how women can be made to do development faster and better, or at all. Abdullah and Zeidenstein’s well-known study of rural gender relations, undertaken to inform a programme to ‘integrate’ women into rural development via credit and livelihood activities, is guilty of just such a disconnected view. They note that the women they study consider social change to have been very rapid in the recent past, but say little about how the traumas of the conflict may have shaped their worldview or adherence to older customs (1982). One of their key conclusions is that ‘projects or services intended to reach rural women are more likely to take hold if they address the priorities of rural women and their families and the village’ (1982, 216), presumably reflecting the fact that development approaches that did not do so were common. Despite its limitations, the study showed that new space had been created in which to discuss issues of gender. Knowledge about rural women turns out to be crucial to development practice: in her foreword, no less than Ester Boserup notes the key lesson that ‘experts must first learn from the rural women before they can teach them’ (Abdullah and Zeidenstein 1982, viii). And the study challenges the idea of the intractability of the ‘woman issue’, showing that rural women and their men were both more favourably inclined towards women’s involvement in development projects than urban educated men in aid agencies and government.

(p.86) A key and enduring critique of the dominant representations of women in Bangladesh is that they often take a ‘utilitarian and manipulative stance towards women which seeks to reduce women to the status of means of social policy’, chiefly to encourage them to have fewer children or to be ‘harnessed to the cause of development’ (Alam and Matin 1984, 9, 3). Social-scientific and public policy interest in women starts and ends with their contribution to development, such that development policy ‘appears like a super ego in virtually every work on women in Bangladesh’ (White 1992, 18). White further argues that the

changing imagery of Bangladeshi women—from a ‘backward’ sector ‘left out’ by development, through ‘human resources’ or ‘resource managers’ to the passive ‘target’ of programmes aimed to reduce their fertility and draw them into capitalist production—originates in the aid community, rather than in Bangladeshi society itself. (White 1992, 19)

It seems unarguable that the specific language and concepts used to define and describe women and their material and social concerns start with the concerns of aid. But it is worth asserting again that the history of the emergence of women’s issues suggests that aid was applying its own projectized language and categorizations to a setting of social decline and profound human crisis about which little could be understood, let alone changed. Into the platitudinous blandness of some of this early aid research on women we can read an understandable effort to sanitize the horrors and pain and render them, literally, manageable.

4.6 Implications of Women’s Citizenship in the Emerging Social Contract

In later chapters we will look in more detail at how public policy has transformed the lives of women and girls and the roles they have played in their country’s transformation. But for now, we explore two examples of the changing terms of the social contract between women, society, and the state. The first is the strength, firmness, and multiplicity of opposition to violence against women in social movements and in the law. Levels of violence are high in absolute and relative terms, and a significant minority remains supportive of patriarchal norms: for instance, a third of women of all ages agreed it was acceptable for husbands to beat their wives for infractions of the wifely code (burning dinner, going out without permission, refusing sex; NIPORT 2013). Almost three-quarters of men report having been violent towards their wives (World Bank 2007), between a quarter to two-thirds of Bangladeshi women experience violence from husbands in their lifetime, and women (p.87) and girls routinely face violence, threats, and harassment from non-family men in public spaces.13 Violence against women is relevant here not because its levels or forms have changed, but because of the institutionalized and powerful resistance it has engendered. Prominent, powerful, and organized sections of Bangladeshi society no longer accept male authority over women’s bodies to the extent of violence, and have successfully organized their state to reduce the impunity, if not the prevalence, with which women experience violence. In this, they appear to have the support of the general population. This is a movement taking place at different levels, involving coalitions of actors across levels, classes, and sectors: community groups, national women’s organizations like Mahila Parishad and Nari Pokkho, development NGOs, parts of the mass media, the state machinery, and international human rights mechanisms and networks.14 Resistance to violence signals a growing assertiveness to refuse patriarchal rights to commit violence against women, whether wives or women who transgress patriarchal norms by being in public spaces (and are therefore ‘legitimate’ objects of violence).15

A second example of the growing citizenship of Bangladeshi women is in the institutionalization of social protection against the crises inherent in the life-cycle. Again, this displaces old patriarchal responsibilities that were largely honoured in the breach. The institutionalization of what in Bangladesh is known as the social safety net has been noticeable in the wake of the global food, fuel, and financial shocks of the early twenty-first century (see, for instance, GoB 2012). But recent changes to the state safety net build on a system that has developed over the decades, partly motivated by democratic–clientelistic political competition, partly by the drive to absorb more and use aid better, and partly, too, because these imperatives align with state policy to protect the poorest. This has been present across regimes, but most expansionary and explicit under Awami League majority rule in the democratic period since 1991. It is early to say whether recent efforts to strengthen the social safety net will foster women’s citizenship, but programmes set up in the post-famine period set the stage for the transformation of the relationship between women and the state, and indeed organized non-state action. Chief (p.88) among these has been the Vulnerable Group Development16 (VGD) programme, known locally as the ‘dustho mata (destitute mothers’) card’. This was a World Food Program (WFP)-supported scheme through which rural political representatives channel a regular ration of foodgrains to cardholders supposedly selected as the most needy. As need far outstrips supply and there is no formal accountability in the process, the card is among the rents which local political patrons distribute among the lowest layers of their client-base. In fact, although the bureaucratic governance of the programme is weak to non-existent, the political incentives to ensure the cards mostly reach poor women are fairly strong; the programme is a prime example of an intervention that succeeds by ‘going with the grain’ of local political power arrangements (see Hossain 2007a). In variations to the core food transfer scheme, there have been training and other initiatives by NGOs and donors to ‘graduate’ these women into micro-finance schemes, frequently in a bid to reduce their dependence and integrate them into the market.17 But at its core, the programme protects a large number of vulnerable women from absolute destitution. It also gives them a recognizable stake in ‘getting on the list’—seeing and being seen by the state (see also Chatterjee 2004; Corbridge et al. 2005).

The VGD programme was established under military rule in 1975, immediately following the economic and political crises in which the assassination of the nationalist Sheikh Mujib sparked off a series of coups, the last of which installed the military leader Zia Rahman in power, where he remained until his assassination in 1981. VGD was a product of both its time and the aid ‘tilt’ of the Zia regime. The 1974 famine taught donors that government food stocks were precarious and in need of further donor support, and that food aid needed to be targeted to the poor. The new regime was by no means on the left, despite having come to power on the back of a leftist coup; but the particular political context and constraints lent it a discernibly pro-poor tendency (discussed further in Chapter 6). Zia was a pragmatist rather than an ideologue who submitted to international donor community pressures (Sobhan 1982). These directions included market orientation, against the statist economic management that had characterized Awami League ‘socialism’, as well as interventions targeted to the poor. The Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) (as it was originally called—not to be confused with an existing intervention that now takes that name) came about as part of this wider reorientation, and it reflected the beginnings of a move away from universalist (p.89) rations programmes which, despite their rhetoric, had favoured the politically organized urban middle classes at the expense of the rural poor (see Chowdhury and Haggblade 2000).

VGD is not a progressive programme by contemporary standards. Very poor women are required to queue for hours for deliberately public handouts that highlight their destitution and dependence, often to receive foodgrains of inferior quality. There are no effective grievance mechanisms, and the rationing of the cards means that there is no effective right to such protection: if you get a card, you are lucky. But if you are unlucky, no matter how severe your need or deserving your case, there is neither a formal rights basis on which to demand it nor a formal legal basis through which to claim it. Informally, however, a local political leader who fails to provide a card for visibly destitute elderly women will lose political capital, and, worse, may even be subject to public shaming or, if particularly egregious, to threats (Hossain 2010b). The programme works despite weak systems of command and control because of how society and politics are configured: local elites are not so detached or distant from the poor people they are supposed to serve that they can routinely afford to neglect them.

These are not the only and they may not be the best examples of the feminization of citizenship in Bangladesh, nor of development ‘success’. But each adds an angle to the argument that the patriarchal bargain broke because women could no longer afford to rely on their men to provide and protect, they have been pushed into laying claims on the state, and (partly to attract aid) the state has taken up some of that slack. It has done so for better and for worse, and women and girls in contemporary Bangladesh experience new and different disciplines and controls to those that constrained them under the old patriarchal bargain. But although the process has not been unambiguously empowering for women, there can be little doubt that their incomplete release from the customary patriarchal bargain to be reincorporated as citizens has been crucial to the advances of human development in Bangladesh. There should also be no doubt that the state has been foundational in permitting and enabling these new incorporations, as it extends its reach into the most personal (but no longer private) domains of homes and families, bodily practices, and sexual relationships.

The mandate to address gender was by no means accepted with alacrity by the society or its governing elites in the first instance. Several of the truths that needed confronting and the new ways of being that a recognition of women entailed amounted to attacks on deeply personal and private matters of sex and sexuality; marriage, family, home, and kin; honour, shame, and status. But the extremes of destitution and desperation that became unignorable in the wake of the war brought the joint issues of gender and poverty to the policy table. Once women had been recognized as citizens and development (p.90) agents in their own right, it was a short step to operationalizing the knowledge that gender relations held the key to the human-development challenge in public policy and social action. Somewhat later, the interest in the nimble fingers of an endless stream of apparently docile female workers gave the pay-off to an ideology of women’s economic empowerment—an ideology that perfectly accommodates the spirit of globalized capitalism.18

There has never been an important challenge to the national development ideology of women’s economic empowerment: to the extent that this succeeded, it was a classic example of strong winners (public policymakers seeking donor approval and funding; NGOs seeking the same but also winning formulae and replicable models; a strong, cross-class women’s movement with useful coalitions across other civil society actors; industrial elites benefiting from effective subsidies from state and society) and weak losers (the dispersed power of the local landed elite, who gained as much or more than they lost from women’s advancement; the Islamic right—weak and localized to date, with little to gain ideologically or materially from opposing the economic advancement of extremely poor women).

In the forty years since independence, women have mostly consolidated and extended the terms of their engagement in the social contract, becoming the objects of both protection and control. We will explore this further as we look at how women have increasingly pushed for and are being treated by the state as citizens in their own right, with their own concerns; the growing extent of gender equality in the middle classes, particularly as a result of public service employment; and the priority given to social protection, which primarily serves women at vulnerable stages of the life-cycle. Progressive forces and organizations, including civil society organizations and NGOs, have played a major role, often with the backing of aid. And there have also been backlashes at local and national levels against women’s mobility and freedom in particular, but also against women’s rights to organize as workers. These changes have frequently been viewed as evidence of women’s empowerment in Bangladesh, but it may be more appropriate to see them as evidence of the declining relevance of the traditional patriarchal bargain, and its replacement with a social contract between citizen and state. This may loosen the domination of one set of patriarchal institutions, but the terms on which the state, the market, and global institutions contract with Bangladeshi women come with their own controls and domination—as well as benefits and sources of power.


(1) This chapter grew out of conversations with Naila Kabeer about the effects of the early 1970s on gender relations in Bangladesh. Particularly important for me have been her insights into the way in which the shock to Bangladeshi society disrupted customary gender norms and women’s behaviour, paving the way for challenging new approaches to ‘women’s needs’.

(2) The ‘woman question’ had already been raised in previous generations of nationalist political discourse in colonial Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century, typified in the Ghare-Baire (‘home and world/outside’) dichotomy of Rabindranath Tagore’s nationalist novel of that name. Women’s liberation was dropped from nationalist political concerns as customary gender relations came to be emblematic of Indian difference from the West, such that ‘the home was the principal site for expressing the spiritual quality of the national culture, and women must take the main responsibility for protecting and nurturing this quality’ (Chatterjee 1993, 126).

(3) The practice persists on an almost universal basis, reflecting the continued priority of female sexual purity, the extreme personal insecurity faced by or feared for girls and women, and the institution of dowry or payments to grooms’ families since the twentieth century, a reversal of the direction of marriage transactions that historically applied (Lindenbaum 1981; Ahmed 1987). These appear to be the main reasons Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage in the world, although its ‘outlier’ status continues to present a puzzle. Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of women aged 20–49—that is, who came of age since Bangladesh’s independence—were married before they reached eighteen, the legal age of marriage (UNICEF 2014). The situation does not appear to be improving: 65 per cent of women aged 20–24 had been married before 18, according to most recent figures—a level that has stayed fairly constant since the mid-1990s (NIPORT 2013). However, recent evidence suggests that at least some of these ‘early’ marriages occur later than girls’ actual birthdates would suggest, because the premium on female youth means parents would prefer to lie and break the law on marriage age than to admit that girls are over 18 at the time of marriage (Streatfield et al. 2015).

(4) Kandiyoti’s description of classic patriarchy applies here (1988). For accounts of Bangladeshi forms of patriarchy specifically, see Adnan (1993); Cain, Khanam, and Nahar (1979); Kabeer (1988); Feldman (2001). Greeley (1983, 43) examines the implications of changing agricultural technology for the economic basis of patriarchy, and Feldman and McCarthy (1983b) detail the new symbolic and spatial forms taken by purdah against these shifting economics.

(5) In one of my earliest research projects, a study of women-headed households, I realized that the norm of extended family care of elderly women was probably a middle-class ideal when a destitute widow we were interviewing made it clear she had never expected her son would take her in: he had a hard enough time keeping himself and his wife and children alive (Hossain and Huda 1995).

(6) And probably the rise of jute production, although I recall no examples where reliance on jute production has been analysed as a reason for the decline in the material basis of East Bengali patriarchy.

(7) The war rapes have been analysed in detail by Bina D’Costa (2011; 2014b; 2010), Nayanika Mookherjee (2015; 2008; 2012), and Yasmin Saikia (2011), and I rely on their work for the facts and for understanding these events in their context. On the points about the genocidal intent of the rape, see D’Costa and Hossain (2010). Gerlach (2010) disputes that ‘genocide’ was intended, but then he disputes the concept of genocide entirely. He does, however, note that the sexual violence in the Bangladesh war of independence was unusually extreme. See also Sharlach (2000).

(8) As well as widows, women freedom fighters, and those who sacrificed and risked their lives by staying behind and supporting or caring for the fighters and the wounded (D’Costa and Hossain 2010).

(9) Although rape by the Bangladeshi military of indigenous women as part of the settlement of the Hill Tracts and other adivasi community territories continues this theme and tradition of sexual violence as military conquest/genocide of ‘the other’ (see D’Costa and Hossain 2010).

(10) Shehabuddin makes a similar point when she notes the state is an important actor in the study of women’s lives in Bangladesh more ‘by virtue of its limitations and absence’ than because it is felt to have done much for women (2008, 16). I disagree that the state has been absent from women’s lives, but that there remains vast room for supporting and enabling Bangladeshi women through more and better state action is without doubt true. That women have expectations of their state is itself, I would argue, a sign of their growing sense of citizenship.

(11) Although ‘menstrual regulation’, a ‘procedure that uses manual vacuum aspiration (MVA) to safely establish nonpregnancy after a missed period’, is legal (Guttmacher Institute 2012). USAID’s population programmes in Bangladesh experimented with the production of cheap devices through which untrained users could facilitate early stage abortions, sometimes through the medium of feminist NGOs and marketing technologies. Some of the organizations at the forefront of this technology were involved in the large-scale abortion programmes in the post-war period (see Murphy 2012).

(12) Murphy (2012) documents how the experience of wartime rapes came to be institutionalized in fertility control programmes after the war, including through ‘USAID’s approach to fertility control, which knitted together reproduction, economy, and experts in a way that harbingered later neoliberal forms of development’ (Murphy 2012, 168). In another connection between the war rapes and the experimental fertility programmes through which the aided state sought to make Bangladeshis, Mookherjee notes that ‘a large number of women raped during the war received professional training…and worked as these lady village workers’ distributing family planning advice and devices (2007, 346).

(13) See Table 7.1 in World Bank (2007, 90–1).

(14) See for instance, the 8th official submission to CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (GoB 2015).

(15) There is a large literature examining the distribution, sources, and character of violence against women in Bangladesh. These include cross-country comparative analyses of prevalence by the World Health Organization (García-Moreno et al. 2005; Garcia-Moreno et al. 2006). Ruchira Naved has produced an exhaustive body of work on the nature, extent, and correlates of violence experienced by women in Bangladesh (e.g. Naved and Persson 2010; Naved 2013). Much work is also devoted to exploring the relationship between women’s involvement in paid work, micro-enterprise, and other ‘non-traditional’ activities (Schuler et al. 1998; Heath 2014).

(16) Originally the Vulnerable Group Feeding programme, not to be confused with the current Vulnerable Group Feeding programme which has a somewhat different purpose and means.

(17) See Matin and Hulme (2003) for an analysis of the lessons of the long-running BRAC extension of the VGD programme. Also Lewis (1993) for a critical view of the preference for integrating poor Bangladeshi women into markets rather than building welfare systems.

(18) On which, see (Fraser 2012).