The Lives of Women in Rural Bangladesh: Gender and Labor During the Liberation War 1971
In the 19th century, India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan were united under British rule. On 15 August 1947, the former British territories were partitioned into two independent states: India, and Pakistan. Pakistan was divided into two provinces: majority Bengali speaking East Pakistan and majority Urdu speaking province of West Pakistan, separated from each other by a vast stretch of Northern India. A growing political rift between the two provinces, mainly on the language question, intensified in 1971. In this context, the people of East Pakistan started the struggle for independence which was finally achieved in 1971. At first this struggle began in urban areas of East Pakistan but later spread to the countryside. After the speech of East Pakistan’s political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 7th March, the rural people of Bangladesh participated in the jatio-andolon (national movement) against the Pakistani Bahini (Chowdhury 1).
Growing up in Bangladesh, I had heard and read many stories about the Liberation War. Some of these stories emphasized the role of political leaders in the Liberation War of 1971, others talked about the contribution of ordinary people, and still, others brought to light horrific stories of sexual violence that shaped the experience of the War. In all these existing narratives, I never learned about the experiences of ordinary rural women during the political movement. My curiosity about the contribution of rural women during the War first led me to this research project. My research is based on interviews with women in Neyamotpur and Kajla village whose were not only witnesses of the 1971 War, but also participated in the War in their own unique ways. My essay tells the history of the War from a new vantage point, shifting the lens from urban areas to rural areas, from men to women, and from the major battlefields of the War to stories of everyday lives. My essay explores factors that challenged rural women’s abilities to procure food for their households during and after the War. In the next section, I situate my analysis of the changes brought about by the War against an account of the division of labor in rural Bangladesh. Thus, this essay puts forth an intersectional analysis of gender roles and socio-economic status of rural women in a patriarchal society like Bangladesh.
Gender roles, the impact of War, and the influence of socio-economic status
During 19th century, elite Bengali Muslim women were expected not to go outside and do household activities within the home. Despite this, during the War, women of all backgrounds had a significant role in an agrarian society. Statistics of rural labor were divided into two segments: household work and farm work. Household work included activities such as cooking, childcare, and preparing food among others which were all typically performed by women (Westergaard 13).By contrast, men-dominated activities were plowing, sowing plants, irrigation, harvesting, collecting, and threshing (Women in Bangladesh 25). On the other hand, women also participated in farming, but there were differences in work types. Women-dominated activities were husking, grinding spices, preserving, and processing of crops (Women in Bangladesh 25).
Despite playing these important roles, women’s work was considered “unproductive” as their work was unwaged and done within home (Holmstrom 189). Those activities were encapsulated in gender norms that rural women should do in rural society in their roles as mothers, and daughters-in-law. Besides these farming activities, rural women in Bangladesh—who were predominantly Muslim—also undertake most of the housework. In this work, their activities were governed by gendered codes of appropriate behavior, “The powerful ideological operator in Bangladesh is very much related to the Muslim religion. The religious norms as regards women prescribe that women observe purdha, i,e. that they should not be seen by males outside the family” (Westergaard 10). Thus, in the peasant group of Bangladesh, there was an influence of Muslim religious norms. Therefore, the prestige issue of peasant culture was related to the ritual of purdha. As a result, most of the rural women did their household activities and farming “inside the bari” (home) (Westergaard12). Moreover, household activities and unproductive farming work were also divided into two categories: bhitarer kaaj (inside work) and bahirer kaaj (outside work) based on the socio-economic status of a rural family (Westergaard 12). One of my interviewees, Komli Chowdhury, came from a family of means, with 20 acres of land to their name. During 19th century, 20 acres was considered a huge amount of land in rural areas which granted landowners an elite status. Given their elite social status, they were stricter in observing social and religious norms. She said that she did not go outside from the house for any work, “I did cooking, cleaning before the 1971 War” (Chowdhury). During the War, the military burned Komli Chowdhury’s in-law’s house. Even during the War and in economic crisis, she often not allowed coming out of their traditional gender roles. Therefore, for those rural women who inhabited an elite socio-economic status, their form of labor had not changed very much. Thus, the roles of women in the rural economy were not just determined by gender norms but also by socio-economic status. Elite women’s mobility was restricted to the household. Therefore, their labor was mostly performed within the household. Elite women’s status, as well as involvement in the labor force, remained more or less the same throughout the War.
Transformation of status: from elite women to working women
By contrast, during 19th century, socio-religious norms that were given by the society were not always strictly followed by poor and landless rural women. Though they were strictly bound by socio-religious norms, their crisis motivated them to take greater part in bahirer kaaj both before the War and during the War. Another interviewee Milona Akhtar had three children before the War. Her husband inherited approximately three-acres of land which he worked on himself. She undertook all household activities by herself. Given the gendered norms restricting women’s movements outside the home, Akhtar rarely stepped out of her home before the War. Most of her time was spent conducting household activities and some kinds of farming activities that could be performed inside the bari (home). However, during the War, her family experienced food shortages as during the War, her family was not able to harvest their paddies from their fields as there was heavy rain and people were afraid to go to their paddies out of attack by the military. Thus, the dire consequences of the War pushed my interviewee, Akhtar to ignore the restrictions of purdha and seek work outside the house even though she was pregnant. This point was corroborated by Custers whose work argues that during the economic crisis Bangladeshi rural women were forced to look for work outside the house by ignoring purdha rules so that they could ensure their own and their family’s survival (213). Though it was Wartime, Akhtar was able to employ herself. She worked in the home of an elite rural woman as a house servant. Moreover, while she worked in other people’s houses, she continued to perform her own household activities. Her experienced also shows that in a patriarchal society, even when women work outside the home, they continued to do domestic work in their own household also. Yet, by stepping out of the house, Akhtar discarded the restricted purdha system and did not abide by strict gender norms pertaining to rural women. Thus, she was breaking the stereotypes of gender roles as maintaining strict purdha was more or less mandatory for a Muslim woman at that time.
Devaluing women’s work
Similarly, doing household work within the house and doing household work outside the house were two different things. For one, household work was not considered productive work: it was not valued as work in a society structured around market value. Rather, it was considered to be natural and even mandatory that women should perform all labor inside the home. However, within women’s own home her household work considered as unpaid while the same kinds of household work she did outside the home in other people’s houses became paid work. There was thus a distinct difference in term of valuing the household work. On the flipside, while women’s work outside the home became paid work, and hence “productive” according to social norms, it continued to be devalued in the society because women had broken purdha norms. To demonstrate the restrictiveness of the purdha system in 19th centuries, Bengali feminist thinker Begum Rokeya in her book Abarodh Basini (The Secluded women), held that the purdha system was so strict that she was not even allowed to be seen unveiled in front of the female home servant in the house who came from the home of one of her own relatives (14-15). Her statement had shed light that during that time, the purdha system was so strict that those women who worked outside the home were regarded as equals to men as they also go outside without maintaining purdha like men did and for this reason elite women were not allowed to go in front such women. Therefore, the elite women who stepped outside of the home due to the crisis also faced social opprobrium for nonconformance of traditional gender roles. In this regard, my interviewee said that “working outside did not look good to the society but for the survival of my family I had to work outside” (Akhtar). Thus, in both situations, women’s work is devalued within the home and outside the home. These experiences show the intersectional relatedness between gender norms and socio-economic status.
The absence of support from male members of the household in a patriarchal society
In a patriarchal society, women’s economic condition depended on men’s socio-economic status. One of my interviewees, a rural woman named Alali Begum was married at an early age. She came from a family of means, which owned seven acres of land. Those lands were enough for her family members to survive. Before the 1971 War, she was newly married and did not have many responsibilities in the household. While describing her life during the War, she said “I began to take a more active part in household work during the War. I started cooking and cleaning as my mother-in-law was busy working outside” (Begum). Therefore, the War brought distinct change in her daily activities as the situation had changed. After the War ended, she gave birth to a child. A few years after her child’s birth, her husband died leaving her a widow. While her husband was alive, she did not have financial problems as her husband took financial responsibility for their household. But after the death of her husband, she did not inherit any assets or land from her husband as her husband had passed away before her father-in-law. Other men from her in-law’s house forcefully took control of all the property that was her due. Moreover, as her son was also younger at that time, he also did not inherit land from her father-in-law as “living law” was more significant than “lawyer’s law”:
The village community’s autonomy is reflected in the decisions taken at the grassroots level by village elders or matbars/mondols at the informal village court (salish), …. The subjection of women in the region is done in accordance with the Bengali concept of ‘masculinity’, there is nothing Islamic about it. (Hashmi 7)
Here, according to religious law, she was meant to inherit land, but, due to the village court law she did not get ownership of any land. As a result, she and her son were forced to go back to her parent’s house. Similarly, she did not inherit any land from her parents also as they were landless. For the family to survive, she needed to supplement her household income through her own earnings. She therefore decided to work outside the house and started work as a house maid. To support herself, she said, “till now I work in other people’s houses as a maid for my livelihood” (Begum). Therefore, in a patriarchal society, the absence of support from male members of the household forces landless women like Alali Begum become helpless and seek low-paying jobs like household work to support themselves. Thus, in a patriarchal society, a poor widow became helpless without the support of a male member and their way of livelihood depended on the gender norms of a society.
Life of elite rural women in the absence of husband
In terms of elite women gender roles can be different from the landless working women. During the war, men joined in the War and their wives were at home, but they were usually accompanied by another male member of the household. One of my interviewees was the wife of a freedom fighter name Korimon Banu. She inhabited an elite social status as her family inherited 30 acres of land. Before the War, she only took care of her family and cooked for her family members. By the time her husband joined the War, her child had grown up by a few years up. Speaking of her work during the War, she said, “My father-in-law did all the work outside and took responsibility for decision-making. I have not done any new work like decision-making or working outside” (Banu). Moreover, they did not face any financial crisis as her family had a large landholding along with a small business. In Banu’s case, in her husband’s absence during the war other male family members stepped into play his role, “Men think that women should not participate in decision making in ‘off-bari’ (outside home) matters either” (Hashmi177).
Moreover, socio-economic status played a substantial role in the malleability of gender roles among rural women in Bangladesh. Therefore, the gender norms of Bangladesh’ patriarchal society did not allow women to make any decisions as men almost always replaced other men in women’s lives. The absence of male authority rendered women’s conditions and livelihood even more vulnerable.
To sum up, for rural women, the challenges to maintaining their livelihoods during and after the Bangladeshi Liberation War were crucially related to issues of food accessibility. Transformations in gender roles did not only depend on the material effects of a given political movement but also depend on economic strain it produced in the socio-economic status of rural women. Changes in socio-economic status affected the changes in gender roles of rural women. For most of the elite women, War did not bring up any changes in their gender roles as their families had means to support the households. On the contrary, for landless and poor women, there was distinct change in gender roles that stemmed from economic necessity. In the face of economic crisis, many women sought waged work outside the home. Despite this change, women’s work outside the household continued to be devalued because it was considered a violation of religious and cultural norms for women. Thus, my paper shows a) the intersections of gender and class in shaping women’s lives and b) the possibilities as well as limits of changes in women’s lives as a result of major socio-political movements.
Works Cited (MLA 8 edition)
Chowdhury, Afsan. Narider Ekattor. University Press Limited, 2022.
Chowdhury, Afsan. Gramer Ekattor. University Press Limited, 2019.
Hashmi, Taj. Women and Islam in Bangladesh. Macmillan Press Ltd, 2000.
Westergaard, Kirsten. Pauperization and Rural Women in Bangladesh. Samabaya Press, 1983.
Women in Bangladesh. “National Report to the Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing
Rokeya, Begum. Abarodh Basini. Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Holmstrom, Nancy. “”Women’s Work,” the Family and Capitalism.” Guilford Press, Vol. 45,
No. 2, 1981.
Chowdhury, Komli. Personal interview. 21 May 2022.
Milona Akhtar. Personal interview. 21 May 2022.
Amina Khatun. Personal interview. 22 May 2022.
Korimon Banu. Personal interview. 21 May 2022.
Alali Begum. Personal interview. 22 May 2022.