Bangladesh: Double standards

Petra Dannecker
In Bangladesh, Islamist organisations exploit rumours of loose lifestyles abroad to tarnish the image of migrant women in general.
Even though the women affected, so far, have been unable to organise and to find a voice in the public sphere, the mere fact that they are actively searching for innovative options is challenging traditional ideas of gender relations. Male migrants feel threatened by their economic achievements.
Female migration is a recent but widespread phenomenon in Asia. It is assumed that, nowadays, nearly 50 per cent of the continent’s migrants are women (Shape, 2001). The feminisation of migration (Piper 2003, Ehrenreich and Hochschild, 2003) is caused by increased demand for cheap labour in export-oriented industries as well as in service sectors in countries such as South Korea, Singapore or Malaysia. Women are hired because they are cheaper than local workers or male compatriots. New migration patterns, new gendered labour markets as well as disputes over gender relations result from this trend.

This article deals with female migrants from Bangladesh who are or were employed in Malaysia. The majority of the women I interviewed appreciated the work and the living situation abroad. Most stated that their stay was successful even though the working conditions and the salaries did not meet national or international rules and regulations.

In Bangladesh, women were hardly employed outside the domestic sphere before the 1980s. Export-oriented industrialisation has changed matters since. Formal employment first became common for women in the garment sector (Kabeer 2000, Dannecker 2002). On top of this, long-distance migration became customary in the 1990s. Cultural norms have always worked against female formal employment and migration, but rising male unemployment, increasing demand for female labour and the growth of a transnational immigration industry have facilitated female mobility. They have also triggered women’s desires for change.

In the 1990s, Malaysia became the most important destination for Bangladeshi migrants, especially for women. In this country, most female Bangladeshis are not allowed to work as household helpers. The Malaysian government argues, somewhat absurdly, that Bangladeshi women lack the necessary competence because of their national background. This regulation, however, makes Malaysia the preferred country for migrant women from Bangladesh. They expect formal sector employment to be safer and to provide higher incomes.

Debate on female migration

Reliable statistics are unavailable, as the Malaysian government does not publish any data on migration. In all likelihood, however, male Bangladeshi migrants still outnumber women (in the case of Malaysia as well as in general). Nonetheless, policy responses and public debate in Bangladesh prove that female migration has initiated cultural and social changes and is leading to the renegotiation of Islamic norms, values and practices.

As early as 1981, a presidential order allowed only professional women to migrate. Most likely, an organisation of migrants in Kuwait together with an Islamist organisation in Bangladesh convinced the government of stopping the migration of women (Siddiqui, 2001). They argued that women’s honour could only be protected if they were not permitted to leave their families, communities and “home”. The order was lifted in 1988 and women’s labour migration increased fast. In 1997, however, a new and stricter ban was announced, which even applied to professional women. Autonomous female migration – in the sense of crossing borders without male guardians – was completely forbidden.

The government justified its decision as a precautionary measure. Once again, organisations of male migrants and Islamists were probably the main proponents. The government referred to studies and documentaries on the dangers women face abroad. These reports, interestingly, had been produced by human rights and women’s organisations, which, however, had primarily focused on trafficked women who end up in the sex industries of neighbouring countries. This is indeed an important issue in its own right but, obviously, quite distinct from formal sector employment. Human rights and women’s groups, therefore, opposed the ban on migration arguing that it was unconstitutional and discriminated against women. Civil society protests and lobbying by recruitment agencies finally lead to the abolition of the ban. Nonetheless, migration procedures for women remain very complicated whereas the government actively promotes the migration of men. Remittances of migrants are among the country’s most important economic resources.

Politics and public discourse are deeply embedded in the perception of women’s decent behaviour and proper gender relations. Organisations of male migrants and Islamist forces argue that women abroad violate the norms and values of purdah. The word literally means curtain. As a concept of day-to-day practice, purdah regulates the social and physical spaces for men and women. It serves as a powerful instrument to control women. In the view of conservative Islamists as well as many male migrants, women who go to foreign countries are invading spaces not meant for them. By doing so, they are giving a bad impression of Bangladeshi women in general. Such views were often expressed in my interviews. Men will typically argue that female migrants have contact with men, that they do not dress properly and that they spend their money for consumption instead of sending it home. Women are also accused of acting sexually promiscuous. The irony is that, in every day life, female migrants in Malaysia live almost entirely confined to their workplaces and abodes.

Through their networks, male migrants do not only transfer money, information and goods but also pro-ject the image of migrant women enjoying a loose and un-Islamic lifestyle abroad. This image is produced in a transnational space and then transmitted to Bangladesh where it affects even those who do not migrate. Whereas households of male migrants often proudly display the symbols of their family members’ success, households of female migrants tend to hide the fact that close relatives are living and working in another country.

Male resentment

The attitude of male migrants has to be seen in a national and an international context. For decades, Bangladeshi men have found jobs in the Middle East and in South East Asia. However, the growing global and local demand for female workers is reducing their economic options. This, in turn, has negative effects on the men’s reputation and status back home. As Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, the idea of a special “Muslim Brotherhood” between the host society and Bangladesh is wide spread. Migrants, recruitment agencies and even the Bangladeshi government have fostered this notion. Moving to Malaysia is, therefore, linked to high hopes and fantasies. In reality, however, most migrants experience discrimination and exploitation by their Malay “brothers”.

Bangladeshi men, however, do not hold Malaysian authorities or the Malay people responsible for the problems they face and the bad reputation they suffer. Rather, they blame Bangladeshi female migrants (as well as Malaysian Indians, who compete for the same jobs as Bangladeshi men do). Demands to install purdah and to reduce women’s ability to cross borders should therefore be interpreted as a strategy to protect male opportunities despite the changing structure of the global economy.

In Bangladesh, however, anti-women propaganda serves another cause – and has been successful to a considerable extent. After all, the Bangladeshi government did – for some time – impose a ban on women’s mobility. Furthermore, the Malaysian government is becoming more and more reluctant to allow the immigration of Bangladeshi women due to the ambivalent policies of the Bangladeshi government. The bad reputation migrant women have in Bangladesh is a result of Islamist organisations exploiting the anecdotes male migrants tell. Islamists have gained political and public influence in the last years by stressing Bangladesh’s Islamic identity ever since the 1980s.

Islamisation efforts are interwoven with the search for a national identity and the reaffirmation of the local culture. In Bangladesh, as everywhere, various actors use gender and sexuality for the construction of cultural authenticity. Bangladesh’s dependence on aid causes resentment – as does the attention national and international agencies pay to women’s development. Islamist parties and organisations bemoan “westernisation” and construct social and symbolic boundaries to so-called western development models. Programmes and projects that actively try to open new social, political and economic spaces for women are defined as un-Islamic and incompatible with the local culture. More generally, conservatives deny women access to the public sphere. In rural areas, the male dominated public supports this agenda, as many men feel excluded by development projects and programmes.

No public voice

Similarly, women’s formal employment in the export-oriented garment industry has led to a new emphasis on Islamic norms and values. Young women who seek employment are described as a threat to gender relations, family values and to the Islamic identity of the nation itself. Similarly, women’s international migration opens another arena to promote reactionary interpretations of “Islam” and “cultural identity”. The global phenomenon of the feminisation of migration is thus interpreted and instrumentalised for political purposes locally. This process reveals that it is necessary to shift the attention beyond national borders and take trans-local developments and actors more strongly into account if one is to understand the dynamics of local events (Lachenmann 2004).

However, the female migrants, in spite of being at the centre of the debate, are hardly ever heard in public. They have, so far, been unable to organise or to successfully network with existing NGOs. Nonetheless, the mere fact that women are exploring new possibilities challenges existing gender and power relations. The empirical data reveal that women are crossing borders, showing their own agency as well as their desire for change. The images of life and possibilities abroad reach more and more women, even though, in rural Bangladesh, the distribution of “global” information by newspapers, television and movies is still in an early stage. Furthermore, narrative-based accounts by returned female migrants offer elements for forming the scripts of imaged lives abroad.

Increasing demand for female labour corresponds with women’s aspirations. Nonetheless, the negative reputation of female migration makes it very difficult for women to travel. Whereas male migrants can count on their families’ support or on transnational networks, women have to approach outsiders who often cheat them. For example, they may take money without ever providing the documents they have promised.

Emerging networks

In some areas, a new female-based credit system has developed, parallel to the ones already existing but not necessarily accessible for women. Returned migrant women increasingly judge that giving loans to other women who plan to migrate is the most profitable investment. This is particularly so as it is still difficult for women in rural areas to invest in businesses or land. New female-based networks are evolving and facilitating global mobility. However, these networks are, so far, not embedded in existing transnational networks. Nor have they fostered strong ties to NGOs or other well-established actors. Bad reputation and exclusion stand in the way of female solidarity. Many migrant women emphasise that they are not like the “others”, who supposedly run wild abroad. Whereas male migrants have developed a common identity along with generalised solidarity, both of which are supported by organisations and networks, women have only just begun to nurture a sense of identity and solidarity.

Nevertheless, migration experiences are changing women’s perception of “home” and of the gender relations in Bangladesh. Even though their views are not yet leaving a mark on public debate, returned migrant women at least are trying to create new room for manoeuvre and to perpetuate the sense of autonomy that they have experienced in Malaysia. Many state that they now believe in equality of men and women, especially since they felt respected abroad. The fact that Malaysia is portrayed as a role model for a successful Islamic nation, allows women even to argue on religious grounds. The fact that female employment is normal in a successful Islamic country is contrasted to the situation in Bangladesh where employment outside the house is often still perceived as a violation of the gender order.

Although Bangladeshi migrant women are not visible, neither in Malaysia, where they are hardly ever allowed to leave their working and living places, nor, after returning home, in Bangladesh, they contest local practices and the purdah conventions. Despite the difficulties female migrants face because they are challenging the dominant views on appropriate female behaviour and gender relations, the empirical data does show that women will move, independently of politics and public discourse in Bangladesh.

Dr. Petra Dannecker

is a sociologist and works as a lecturer at Bielefeld University. Her article is based on interviews conducted in Bangladesh and Malaysia with male and female migrants, recruitment agents and government officials. This empirical data was collected for a research project on transnational migration.

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