Sex, Pornography, Men, Women and their Rights in Bangladesh

In Cambodia in January I found myself drinking in a bar which was also full of middle-aged European businessmen, and inevitably, young South-East Asian prostitutes. It was a bit awkward but the jukebox was playing great music, so we sat back and watched the night unfold. However, we all couldn’t help smiling when suddenly the jukebox started playing ‘Roxanne’, the Police’s tribute to female emancipation; because you couldn’t have a more inappropriate song and no-one else seemed to notice. The whole scene with that soundtrack went from seedy to hilarious.

It struck me recently that an equivalent in Bangladesh would be playing Andy William’s ‘Music to Watch Girls By’ – if that song’s a tribute to the pleasure of watching attractive women go about their business, it would have been some two and half minutes shorter if Andy had been to the Desh. Statistically there should be about a thousand-odd women in every square kilometre of Bangladesh, but in Sylhet at least, they’re all hiding from me. Every street teems with life; there’s always noise, commotion, trading, talking, arguing everywhere, but it’s all men. It’s very strange.

It seems that the vast majority of women – in towns at least – spend all their time either cooking (Bangladeshi food takes ages to prepare, and everyone eats together in big groups of five or more, minimum) or cleaning, or if they’re really really poor then doing manual construction work. I’ve never seen a female rickshaw-wallah though, or a woman driving any vehicle. I’ve never seen a woman work in any kind of shop, except the ultra-expensive boutiques and supermarkets in Dhaka. Men walk around the rich areas in town selling food off their carts so you don’t have to go to the market, so my landlady for example (her husband works in another town) doesn’t seem to do anything or go anywhere, except potter about the garden and occasionally a bit of cooking and reading the paper.

March 8th was International Women’s Day – several events took place in Dhaka, and the papers that I read had special sections, but of course, as with any of these campaigning days for the people they’re supposed to support, life continued completely as normal.

Women have a tough time in Bangladesh. For example, the Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) is 320 per 100,000, whereas in ‘developed’ countries it is 7-40 per 100,000. 87% of women still depend on unskilled birth attendants, so the MMR is 3.2 per thousand births, whilst the Millenium Development Goal target is 2.75, and the project for this was started in 1994.

According to the 2005-2006 WHO Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women, 41% of Bangladeshi women complained of suffering physical assault, and 44% complained of sexual violence by their husband.

Acid attacks are particularly horrible, and statistics from the Acid Survivors Foundation show that 100 women sustained acid injuries in 2000, 142 in 2001, 224 in 2002, 187 in 2003, 182 in 2004, 147 in 2005 and 134 in 2006.

I only have seen statistics for Bangladesh, and therefore without comparisons to other countries they’re less useful, but I would still imagine that 134 women didn’t have acid thrown at them in Germany in 2006. And of course, these statistics can only show reported crimes. Given the nature of the Bangladeshi legal system and Bangladeshi society, I would guess that much more violence passes undocumented.

In terms of women in positions of power, although for the last 15 years the Prime Ministers and both party leaders have been women, Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina effectively inherited their positions due to the assassination of their husband and father respectively, and they still hold their power based more on their connection to the deceased male leaders rather than their own personal abilities.

In the current interim military/technocrat administration, there is only one female advisor out of ten. In the BNP, Khaleda Zia, the leader, is the only women in its 15-member standing committee and there are 12 women in its 251-member national executive committee. The Awami League has four women in their 15-member presidium, including the leader Sheikh Hasina, and two women in the 31-member secretariat.

The Bangladeshi garment sector accounts for 75% of the country’s total export revenues, and its income level jumped 26% to $8.9 billion in 2006. Women make up 80% of a 2.2 million strong labour force, but even after big protests last year to raise their minimum wage, it can still be as low as $24 a month, whilst their counterparts in Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand would earn between $40 and $76. Hundreds of women are trafficked out of Bangladesh every month to work

Perhaps the biggest institutional barrier to gender equality in Bangladesh is the government’s reservations over two key articles of CEDAW, the international Convention on the Elimination on all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which was adopted by the UN in 1979. Dubbed a ‘women’s bill of rights’, Bangladesh ratified it in 1984, but still holds reservations on Articles 2 and 16.1 because they are deemed to conflict with Sharia law.

Article 2 is for the adoption of measures to prohibit discrimination against women, and 16.1(c) pronounces the same rights and responsibilities of men and women during marriage and its dissolution. Activists argue that with these two reservations, the ratification is meaningless, and they also point out that the reservations are against the Constitution, as they promote discrimination. More crucially, they allege that the male establishment is using religion for political purposes, to preserve their own interests and to dominate and exploit people, especially women. My knowledge of Islam is limited, but my understanding is that it views men and women as moral equals, with equal rights and equal shares of different responsibilities. Certainly some of the rights for women supposedly guaranteed in Islam do not seem to be exercised very often in Bangladesh. Of course, every religion has been used for centuries to subordinate women, and in my opinion, it is a tragedy for human development that spiritual equality is not allowed to cross in to the temporal realm.

Sylhet is religiously conservative, certainly more than Dhaka, and I would estimate at least 60-70% of women who do go outside wear a hijab veil. Maybe 5% of women wear a niqab, with just the eyes showing; which is far more than I have noticed in Dhaka. According to Soad Saleh, a former dean of the female faculty and Islamic law professor at the most prestigious Islamic university in the world, Cairo’s Al-Azhar, the niqab is not an obligation, and the brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamal al-Banna has said that: “Neither the Koran, nor the hadith require women to wear a headscarf.” When Romla was here, who usually lives in Sheffield, one of the many things she moaned about was that she was always being told by her family and neighbours that she shouldn’t wear jeans, shouldn’t ride a motorbike, shouldn’t do this and that.

Personally I think people should be allowed to wear whatever they like as long as it doesn’t offend anyone, and women wearing a niqab or even a proper Burka certainly doesn’t offend me. But it does alter what I would see as normal social behaviour, and not necessarily for the better. A male dominated world might be part of the culture here, but males are also blokes, and every guy I know who isn’t married is obsessed with women. Nearly every computer I’ve ever been on in the internet cafes is loaded with porn, which is a sobering thought as the computers are never in private places. Last week I passed one booth in the afternoon with two guys in openly looking at quite a…open situation, and it wasn’t very pleasant. A couple of times I’ve been offered porn under the counter in DVD shops, or had people come up to me and ask me about pretty filthy stuff. I say that I don’t have sex I’m British, and besides, I’m not married – but given the kind of shows they get imported here on cable tv ‘Sex and the City’, ‘Desperate Housewives’, ‘Baywatch etc’, it’s no surprise that they there’s this misconception that all Westerners are decadent heathens. I found it very difficult to get a house here because people didn’t want to rent to a single man, especially a foreigner.

Another interesting coincidence or maybe consequence of living in such a male-dominated world is that statistically, 70% of men in this country could technically be classified as ‘men who have sex with men’. I’m not sure how ‘sex’ is defined, but the stat comes from VSO Bangladesh’s HIV advocacy advisor, who I trust is reliable. Whilst it is very common to see men physically touching each other, holding hands walking down the street for example, I’ve never seen men and women in physical contact, except the rich youths in Dhaka. Homosexuality is a complete here, but if that stat is correct then that means nearly 50 million men have buttered their bread on both sides, so watch out for Brokeback Bangladesh coming to cinemas at some point in the future.

I’ve noticed as time passes here that I’m less aware of the fact that I’m in a totally different country in terms of environment and landscape – scenery is becoming anonymous and normal to me now. But I’m increasingly noticing these social differences; growing up in central London being surrounded by people from all ethnic backgrounds, and then coming here where it’s 99.9% Bangladeshi – it’s just boring. And walking along busy streets where 95% of people are men, it doesn’t feel right somehow, to me, it’s like the country’s missing something.

Dhaka is a lot more diverse, and I’m sure that as the next generation of Bangladeshi’s matures, things will change across the country – economically it has to – but still only 4% of university students are women, and in the Gender Empowerment measure, Bangladesh came 102nd out of 136 countries in last year’s UN Human Development report. Until society here acknowledges that there’s a lot more women can provide than just rice and babies people fear that Bangladesh isn’t going to develop equally across the country, with growth and innovations restricted to the urban elite.

But social conventions are still so restrictive, and if the only alternatives you’re exposed to are a load of skinny Americans prancing about on your tv, it’s little wonder change is slow. I’m reading a few English classics to while away the time, and sometimes I wonder if I’m still in the 19th century, in terms of social conventions for men and women, pressure for marriage, and making a ‘good’ one. Swap the bonnet for a Burka and you wonder what the difference is.

I’m no expert on Gender and Development, as you might have noticed, but I know someone who is, and she works for Bridge at the Institute of Development Studies. You can see their work here

5 Responses to “Sex, Pornography, Men, Women and their Rights in Bangladesh”


  1. 1 Mikey Leung March 27, 2007 at 7:03 am

    Very informative piece, mate..

    I’ve several opinions on the subject that we can save for a discussion while you’re here!!!

    I hope I’ll be referring to your research again somewhere, in a book perhaps? :)

  2. 2 jules March 27, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    very interesting. you’ll be happy to know that most other ex-colonial countries pregnant with oil and gas and other getrichquick mineral assets have latched on to the same characteristic emergence, and that the sharia law invoked has no currency when it comes to men with men relations, that they formally prohibit. it is the crucial and i think, hysterically funny fulcrum point around which every resurgent fundamentalist region like this spins on. It’s like a grand scale irony played out against the cries of un-emancipated women. You must have encountered similar examples on your work about northern nigeria. The situation in Iran is apparently a source of shame to many homophobic stratum of society, from revolutionary guard to government official, although i guess their ranks are being converted from the inside…
    But I think that it rears probably the ugliest question of them all…what is the correlation between homophilic emergences in an officially homophobic socius and how does that impact on the rights and realities of women?
    i have a book on foucault’s much neglected and underrepported prognostic of the before and after of 79 in Iran. It is crucial because although many of his concepts are in direct polar opposition to the reality, they form good examples of what an under-researched theorem about the actualities of life in a closed society, a sharia society, mean. the critical analysis of his work also shows how amazing these discrepancies extend themselves, into permeating literally all modes of interaction within a society, and what it means for anyone living there since 79.
    sorry for the rant!

  3. 3 freckle April 20, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Dr H was very interested in this remark, and …might revise the thesis!
    “Swap the bonnet for a Burka and you wonder what the difference is.”
    I, as you know, had all such concerns snipped out in the beginning. But – food for a conversation over rice and filtered water, in early September.
    A big fluffy tail and a purr to you.
    F-the-C

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