Afew months ago, Bangladeshi media was rife with reports on the achievements of Olympic medal winner Magarita Mamum.
Yes, we are all proud of Margarita Mamum and Wasfia Nazreen, who are exemplary in proving to the world that women in Bangladesh are no less than their international counterparts.
However, if we can read about them in newspapers and be proud of them, then why cannot we encourage our daughters to be like them? This generation is the first to witness women travelling overseas alone, going abroad to study without getting married, and going on trips with friends.
Such things were almost impossible even a decade earlier.
It was not uncommon a decade back that relatives would decide the fate of a girl by looking at her skin-colour five minutes after her birth. In the last decade, market forces have lead to the utilisation of women -- half of Bangladesh’s hard-working population. As a result, parents of at least middle and upper income families have also been incentivised to educate their girls.
Despite almost all girls from well-off families being educated, such families often impose their thoughts, notions, dreams, and ways of life on their daughters.
Ever wondered if Margarita Mamum was born in Bangladesh to a moderately conservative well-off household, would she have been able to pursue her talent and discover her potential in gymnastics?
Even if she had, would she have been able to garner her parents’ support?
Girls are often given all the encouragement needed to go to university and pursue degrees leading to “appropriate” and “suitable” jobs for girls.
However, even these days, when educated parents make decisions regarding schooling, extra-curricular classes, whether to send their daughters abroad for studies or to school trips with friends, or whether sports can be a permissible interest, they base their decisions on whether it will still keep her marriageable in their respective social class.
It is true that when an educated girl reaches a certain age, she is able to voice her own opinions and interests, but by then the harm is already done.
This has to do with plasticity, a term used by economists to refer to skills which can be easily perfected.
In a society that frowns upon individuality and tries to apply the default setting to everyone, it is difficult for girls to realise their dreams and goals
While social skills are plastic, some skills are not.
Hence, a girl who has never been given a chance in trekking in her early years may be fortunate enough to discover in her 20s that she has potential in mountaineering.
Even if she starts then, despite having the same potential as before, she will be lagging behind her international counterparts, who are likely to have had the support of their parents and training since childhood.
Many parents still judge the appropriateness of an activity based on whether it conforms to the traditional norms of femininity, and whether it will allow their daughter to maintain a comfortable work-family balance in her job, where her in-laws will easily accept her career.
Often, the common perception is: Why support my daughter to go for unconventional fields, when I presume she will be happier with a conventional one with which her in-laws are likely to not object to? Education and salary then replace the purpose served by dowry and a good family background, which has traditionally played a crucial part in marriage.
It is still the case in many families that even during the early years of a girl’s life, more effort is directed towards making her skin look lighter rather than in ensuring that she engages in a wide array of physical and other extra-curricular activities enabling maximum intellectual and physical growth.
In a society that frowns upon individuality and tries to apply the default setting to everyone, it is difficult for girls to realise their dreams and goals, especially within an education system and environment that allows little or no self-exploration.
With our girls lagging behind, unable to dream of becoming mountaineers, athletes, pilots, and defense officers, there is a need of change of perception with respect to the range of career options available to women.
I am optimistic that, with a positive media portrayal of exemplary cases of women’s achievement in unconventional fields, soon parents’ views regarding the limits of what their daughter is capable of, if provided with a level-playing field, will be made much broader.
Maliha Ahmed previously worked in research at BIDS and BIGD. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Economics at University of Illinois at Chicago.