Crossing borders: the lived experience of displaced Rohingya women


This paper concerns experiences of forced migration and displacement of Rohingya along and across the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh through the lens of the shifting gender roles and social identities of young Rohingya women due to lack of the human rights. Before their experiences of forced migration and displacement, young Rohingya women typically adhered to traditional gender roles. Foremost, migration brought forth a new dynamic in the lives of the young women I interviewed by restricting their abilities to meet basic daily needs, insufficiency of basic needs—i.e., food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare—is leading to an unprecedented change in women’s social roles not only at the individual level but rather at a broader societal level. My project maps these changes in the gender role of younger Rohingya women on the Myanmar–Bangladesh border and in the refugee camp with an eye toward how key parameters vital to the reproduction of social identities such as financial wellness, access to healthcare, food supply, security, and sanitization affect gender roles across generations. 


The Traditional Gender Role of the Young Rohingya Women

 Gender roles can be defined as the expectations that people, groups, and communities have for individuals based on their sex, as well as by every society’s values and views on gender (Blackstone, 335). Moreover, Gender norms are the product of the interplay between people and their settings, and they provide indications to people about what kind of conduct is considered proper for which sex. Appropriate gender roles are established by a society’s perception regarding gender differences. The allocation of roles at work could be gendered since it is linked to societal beliefs regarding who inhabits public space (Kamla, 188-205). “The workplace” is an important public space where identity is constituted and gender is performed (Carmona, 1). As Halford and Leonard address, “workplaces matter to how we have to negotiate our gender identities” (54). Similarly, the identity of young Rohingya women could be defined by their traditional gender roles as mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters based on their workplace (the domestic arena). 


According to the tradition of the Rohingya community, a girl should marry at the beginning of menstruation, she has to maintain social and religious norms such as Purdah (veil system). In Myanmar the “young women needed to be within the boundaries of home and work there, they were not even allowed to talk or touch outsiders” (Anonymous, Personal interview 5). Hence, the young woman’s identity belongs only to her family and is circumscribed by her duties as a female. Purdah limited women from going outside in front of males and earning a livelihood and “gender ideologies of purdah and motherhood are some of the strategies by which women have resisted male power” (cited. Abdullah and Zeidenstein, 129). Surpassing those cultural norms, it became impossible for women to construct their own independent identities outside. Moreover, in Myanmar young Rohingya women were the caregivers to the family, and they did not have leadership and did not have an active role in decision-making (Monira,11). In Myanmar, the household duties of Rohingya women included: procuring water and firewood, care work, cooking, cleaning, agricultural labor, and animal raising (Monira, 31). Aside from private home tuitions, very few women had any formal schooling. Among the women I spoke to, only a handful was able to receive vocational training provided by NGOs in Myanmar maintaining the Purdah (Anonymous, Group interview 1). In their roles as fathers, and brothers, men are traditionally imagined as the breadwinners of the household. In Myanmar, most young Rohingya men earn a living through the following activities: running small businesses, farming, fishing, cutting firewood, raising cattle, or teaching as an imam (who teaches Sariah law). Moreover, the Rohingya males are the owners of the property    and they were “responsible to take care of the women of the family” (Maliha, Personal interview 2). Within such a traditional patriarchal division of labor, men dominate economic life and use this as the basis for exercising their authority in the household. Even the decision to migrate from Myanmar to Bangladesh was decided by male members of the household. Human rights activists stress that in Myanmar, Rohingya women were not permitted to leave their homes or “participate in community decision-making” (Monira, 38). 


 Changes in Traditional Gender Roles due to Lack of Human Rights, and Lived Experiences on the Border

 However, the lived experience of women’s journey across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border brought unprecedented changes in this social system. The lived experience is a personal understanding of the world collected through primary participation in everyday occurrences as contrasting representations generated by others (Daniel and Rod Munday, A Dictionary of Media and Communication). Recorded testimonies of forced migrant young Rohingya women recount their experiences of journeying across the border. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “after fleeing persecution and violence in Myanmar in August 2017, there are approximately 902,947 Rohingya people, 52 percent of whom are women and girls”. In making this journey, women overcame many challenges that have transformed their lives. 


The journey across the border was challenging in terms of duration, natural calamities, food supply, and access to medication. First, it was a long journey of three to twenty days, the “permanent or semi-permanent change” of their lingering residence (Lee, 49). MOAS (Model Organization of American States) reported that “the journey took up to 17 days, often with limited food and water, no medical assistance, and crossing through mountainous terrain”. In addition, one of my interviewees, Amina (22), a young Rohingya woman said, “it took ten days for our group to come to Bangladesh and we didn’t have any vehicle or food, we had to take care of ourselves”. Previously, taking care of women was the role of the Rohingya males. In addition, she said that the hill tracks and the deep jungle were unknown to the young Rohingya women, and there was heavy rain along the way, the slope of the hill becomes slippery and muddy, and the mountain river started to overflow. She also added that considering the situation, the young Rohingya women decided that they had to wait several days on the hill slope for the rain to stop. Here women have taken part in decision-making, whereas decision-making areas were dominated by the male in Myanmar. 


Then, on the way, following the gender norms like bodily privacy maintaining Purdah was impossible. While crossing the border, younger Rohingya women stayed in groups and walked day and night because they could not sleep properly in the deep jungle, at night they slept under the open sky (Anonymous, Personal interview 5). Moreover, the group members used to hold “each other’s hands” (could be an outsider male) so that no one would be left behind while crossing the little hill channels or muddy paths (Noorzat, Personal interview 3). The women stayed in groups, there was no chance to maintain Purdah as the women needed to “feed breast to the child” in front of other males (Rahima, Personal interview 6). In a word, “women started ignoring the rules of seclusion, or purdah, because of the need to ensure their own and their families’ survival” (Custers, 213). Besides, for food, they had only dry provisions like Chira/Muri (rice made dry foods), noodles, biscuits, bananas, and almonds, which   finished within a very short time (Custer, 213). In Myanmar, the male member owns the land, and farm, there was plenty of food, but on the way, both the man and woman need to search for bread to survive. Noorzat, one of my interviewers, said, “I work as a house maid and brought food from a nearby house on my way to Bangladesh and fed my family”. Here the women are sharing the role of “breadwinner” (Monira, 32). Again, though some of my women interviewees had rice with them on the border, the women could not cook for their families or children because if they had made a fire in the deep jungle, the Myanmar army would be able to find and kill them. In this case, the women also lead the decision not to cook considering the circumstances.  


Furthermore, for many women, the journey across the border also threw new challenges about money, sanitation, and sexual health which lead to changes in their previous gender roles and earning a livelihood in the camp. For example, one of the interviewees shared, “there was a little food shop on the way, but I could not buy food because I had no money. My husband was with another group. My little daughter starved for three days” (Maliha, Personal interview 3). Although her family was well to do in Myanmar, one of my interviewees had to witness her child starving for days on the way because her husband had left no money for her during the journey. She added that this incident forced her to reflect more on her financial status and to search for food during migration. Later, to support herself, she started working as a teacher in the Learning Center at the Camp. In the same context, Nuzrat Hossain, who is a Human Rights activist, who works in the Rohingya Camp 1E asserts “after these types of traumatic incidents, the women started to think differently about traditional gendered expectations for married Muslim women”. Thus, the experiences of hunger and their inability to rely on their husband for financial support forced them to earn a livelihood for themselves and their children. 


 Impacts of the Migration: A Shift to Identity Transformation and Mental Changes

 Once again, migration in 2017, brought about a sudden transformation in the economic class of young Rohingya women mostly from high class to lower class, and in the course of their lives, which had both “positive and negative” impacts on young women in particular (Anonymous, personal interview 5). First of all, in terms of the testimony, the experience of crossing the border made many young people aware of the consequences of their dependence on male members of the household for personal necessities, such as food, money, shelter, and medical care. In every case, their social dislocation leads to economic dispossession as in Bangladesh they do not have any property or means of life, they entirely depend on relief. Because of new financial needs they started working as handicraft makers (Anonymous, Personal interview 4). Therefore, women are taking the initiative to be independent, to be equal to men.  Secondly, another effect is not only that, but also in the Bangladesh Rohingya camp, there are some changes in gender roles, with more women working outside the home, and more men participating in domestic work like child-caring and domestic, cooking, cleaning, and collecting water (Monira, 11). Significantly, there are 27% female-headed households in the camp (Monira, 28). 

Third, the impact of the migration is that it has also opened up new life chances for women compared to their status in Myanmar where they were not allowed to work outside the household. Women’s migration to Bangladesh created the conditions for the breakdown of older societal boundaries. Every individual experience indicates that attempts to promote female employment, access to resources such as knowledge, training, and education, and employment have a beneficial impact by protecting households from financial difficulties. Women also learn new skills and gain workplace experience. Many new opportunities have opened up for young women in the camps. Many are seeking paid work as volunteers in different NGOs, tailors, handicraft makers, seasonal labors in the local economy, record keepers in local schools, and often as house help (Monira, 32). As a continuous process, paying labor of the Rohingya young women have “connected their identity with their recent working place” (Carmona et all, 1). 


Following Carmona, another positive outcome is, that paid work in the camp has allowed Rohingya women to assume new identities based on their workplace (Das, Humanitarian worker interview 2). In this regard, Dale and Burrell also noted, “the situation and relations of the workplace have been seen as the most significant site of identity construction in […] capitalist society” (106). “Having a job” for young Rohingya women creates the opportunity to create a proactive identity (Dale, 649-678). To allude, my interviewee, Nurjahan (22) states that in Myanmar people address her following her husband’s name (Ismalie’s wife), or people address her as Chachi/Mami/Fufu (aunt) which is also based on the relationship with her husband or brother. Her name does not signify any significance. Nurjahan urges, “I am about to forget my full name. But now I work as an NGO volunteer, people used to address me as Nurjahan Apa (Sister Nurjahan) with due respect. I get a new responsibility, even my husband now listens to me very carefully”. Nurjahan says that She feels proud of getting a new identity. 



 To sum up, initially, women played the role of housewives in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, but the experience of adversity has changed the gender role of young Rohingya women. The new identities as trainees and workers that young Rohingya women have assumed have allowed them to voice themselves in both private and public life. Migration can thus be seen to have both negative and positive impacts on (younger, able-bodied, literate) Rohingya women. Furthermore, the financial collapse has led Rohingya women to spearhead a transformation in gender roles among Rohingya refugees. It ought to be stressed that these changes have not taken place fully and suddenly, but rather intergenerational shifts in the hearts and minds of Rohingya women and men that have taken and will continue to take many years to unfold. In a word, the positive and negative effects of migration seem like two sides of the same coin.


                                                                    Work Cited

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