For some classes, it is a symbol of fashion, faith, and modesty
In the 1980s, when I was growing up in Dhaka, hijab-wearing women were a rare breed. Even the number of women wearing the burkha was minimal.
But these days, if you get out on the city streets for a walk, you may come to believe that virtually half of Bangladeshi women have taken up the veil. All sorts of Islamic veils are evident these days -- abaya, niqab, chador, khimar, burkha, and of course the hijab.
Until only a few years ago, the trend of Bengali women wearing the hijab was pervasive merely in adults, but now it has reached out to the youngsters, pre-teens, and even to pre-school girls. There is also another increasing number of ultra-conservative Muslim women, who cloak every inch of their bodies in black, while they hide their hands and feet in gloves and socks.
Women wearing the Arabic veil, especially the adoption of hijab, started to appear in the country in the early 1990s. The minds of Bangladeshi Muslims have heavily transformed over the last decades, they have grown more conservative, more religious.
An astonishing fact is that it is largely the middle-class women who have morphed their traditional Bengali way of dressing. But the attire of working class women has scarcely changed. The nascent hijab revolution has little effect on them.
There are a few garment factories where I live in Mirpur in the north Dhaka. Every morning, the neighbouring streets get swarmed with garment girls going to work. It is such a spectacular scene to watch. For 10 minutes, everything in the neighbourhood gets eclipsed by the rising tide of some hundred girls hurrying towards the factory buildings.
Whenever I run into the flow of these walking women on the streets, I try to see whether any of them are wearing the hijab, or if someone has wrapped a long scarf over her nose and mouth in the vein of the niqab.
Curiously, I have never spotted any. Not a single girl. Of course, some are seen covering their heads with their ornas in a U-shaped drape way.
Some months ago, I asked one of my acquaintances about this, someone who owns three garment factories on the outskirts of the capital. Did he ever notice any girl with Islamic headscarf on his factory floors? He responded: “No.”
Bangladesh’s RMG industry is the country’s sole biggest foreign exchange earner. As of 2018, Bangladesh is the second largest apparel exporter in the global market, only after China. In fiscal year 2017, the country’s export earnings from the apparel sector stood at $34.83 billion, contributing over 80% to Bangladesh’s total exports.
Since the mid-1980s, the garment factories began to boom in Bangladesh. Once the poor country in South Asia which stemmed from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh is now on the brink of getting on the list of the developing countries by 2021. More than two million female workers are working in this industry, which makes up 60% of the total RMG labour force.
Why are these young women in the Bangladeshi garment sector not tempted by the hijab?
The answer isn’t hard to imagine. In a country where the weather is hot and humid, these disadvantaged working class women work roughly 12 hours in harsh, hasty conditions. How could the women of manual labourers, if favoured to wear extra body covering, survive such terrible long hours underneath veils? There might be a pretty good chance of getting a heat stroke.
It’s true enough that, for the first time in Bangladesh’s history, women have become a massive part of the nation’s workforce. These women have long been vilified and anathematized by Islamist groups. But the devout men forget that these garment girls play a tectonic role behind Bangladesh’s current prosperity.
Hefazat-e-Islam took shape in 2010, in opposition to the government’s initiative to give women equal rights of inheritance. On May 5, 2013, the Islamist group organized a protest where hundreds of thousands of supporters gathered at the commercial district of Motijheel in Dhaka.
They placed 13 demands before the government, including a ban on the free mixing of men and women in public.
Needless to say, this segregation would have cost women their bread and butter as the restrictions would limit their free movement rights, which will eventually cripple the country’s economy.
Conservative Muslims forget that we are not Saudi Arabia. We do not have the oil money so we may keep our women home just to cook and take care of our children.
Like the vast women labour force in the RMG sector, other working-class women in Bangladesh are engaged in a wide range of jobs. They work side-by-side with men as day labourers, street sweepers, and even as street-vendors. They do not bother about keeping purdah. The actuality is they cannot.
The manual work they are into leaves them with least choice to enjoy that religious delight. Plus, since their lives are plagued by ample problems in this life, since they hardly make their ends meet, since they have not in the slightest time for themselves, they surely cannot afford to think about the afterlife much.
Work, home, and sleep -- that’s their way of life for survival.
The same survival theory applies to the lives of the country’s disadvantaged garment workers. The majority of these garment girls hail from villages and poor families. Though their work is often described as a kind of women’s empowerment, the unpalatable reality is they are overworked and underpaid.
Wearing the hijab or maintaining Islamic veils has become a symbol of fashion, faith, and modesty for a certain class in society. It is definitely not a practice seen among the poor young women who are the driving force in Bangladesh’s RMG industry.
Rahad Abir is a writer. He is finishing his debut novel.