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The times they are a changin’

  • Published at 12:53 am March 11th, 2018
  • Last updated at 12:54 am March 11th, 2018
The times they are a changin’
Nudrat Lohani Nabi introduced me to the concept of bhodro meye in this newspaper. As someone from outside Bangladeshi society I can tell you that this isn’t a concept unique to Bangladeshi society. It’s perhaps rarer than it used to be elsewhere but certainly my grandmothers would have been perfectly at ease with most of the concepts. They are also ideas that are going to fade with quite alarming speed as Bangladesh develops, as they did elsewhere. In a society which doesn’t offer women economic freedom, the description of how girls should be is just a description of what makes a “desirable wife.” Economic freedom for women being something that comes along with economic development -- indeed, we can use it as a barometer of it. This isn’t how we all normally think of it, true, for the development and NGO mantra is that gender equality causes that economic growth. Which isn’t quite the way that it works.
And when the economic circumstances change then so will the practices and fashions
Think about the recent past -- what was being sold in the labour market was human muscle power. For many Bangladeshis this is still true of course. For almost no inhabitant of a rich country is this still so. Certainly, skills might be what are rented to an employer, or brain power and experience, but the simple use of human muscles not so much. That grunt work has been replaced by automation, by machinery. But a society where muscles are the determinant of work isn’t going to have much place outside the home economy for women, lighter as they tend to be in musculature. When the economy turns, when we’re using the machines to do the hefting and hauling, then women, who have just as much (or, hint to husbands, wives have more) brains of skill as men can be equal in that world of paid work. Once an income can be gained then so can economic freedom. It means that it is no longer true that a girl’s only way out of her parents’ house is marriage. Oh, sure, there will always be those who simply do marry, and hope to marry well, as that career. Old rich men with younger wives, something in every corner of the globe, are proof of that. But it does become an option, not a necessity. [caption id="attachment_251949" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Economic freedom is finally giving women the power to choose[/caption]

Social signalling

And so society changes. The economic freedom derived from equal -- ok, it’s not entirely equal even yet but it’s a lot more than it ever has been -- participation in the world of paid work liberates from those archaic role models. It’s also quite astonishing how fast these things change. Take something a little different, like skin colour: Anyone in a rich country today reading Jane Austen will think it a little odd that they all obsess over exposure to sunlight and worry seriously that they might end up with freckles. We today -- thankfully given my own Irish red-haired heritage -- think that a tan, freckles and so on are signals of a healthy outdoor life. Back then they were the marker of poverty. Someone who had to work outside was poor in those days. Rich women used clear and pale skin as markers of their wealth and privilege. This isn’t unknown across the sub-continent today. But it was remarkable how quickly this changed. When the rich, and only the rich, could jet or fly away for a winter holiday and the poor could not, being tanned became a marker of privilege. It took only a generation for this to change too. Or consider another such change: There was a time when a university degree was something that the rich simply did not care about, because having one was a marker that you needed to have some career or something to boost it through education. The rich, the aristocracy, simply never bothered and not to bother became a signal of not having to, of that privilege. Nowadays even English Princes get sent off to do a degree, so much has that idea changed. This isn’t though an epistle about such cultural practices as the desirability of certain skin tones, nor of education or career choices for young women. Rather, it’s to note that there are often economic considerations behind many of them, of such cultural practices and fashions. And when the economic circumstances change then so will the practices and fashions.

Choice is power

The coming development of Bangladesh -- we all know it is happening and will continue to happen -- is going to change many of these ideals; just as they have been changed elsewhere by exactly the same processes. The economic liberation of women that the automation of work brings is going to overturn, as it has done elsewhere, many of those certainties which drive that bhodro meye stereotype. Simply because young women will have so many more choices than just being the obedient wife, and many of them will take them too.   Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London. Tim Worstall also writes at the Continental Telegraph with the link going to this site : http://www.continentaltelegraph.com/