We must not retreat from critiquing the systematic and structural exploitation of women
Since the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, women gradually became part of the market economy which marked a break in their historical exclusion from formal employment. As per estimates of ILO, more than 18 million women are employed in the country and the garment industry alone employs around 2.5 million.
This process of integrating women in the market-based economy has coincided with the incorporation of the country into global neoliberal capitalism. Ever since women have been mostly employed in the low paid jobs of garment and other industries -- hence, absorbed into a capitalistic production system, so to speak.
Millions of women workers are sometimes presented in the media as the force behind poverty reduction, economic inclusion, and socio-economic development. They appear as free from the patriarchal social structure -- the epitome of women empowerment.
However, the question that demands an answer is whether capitalism empowers women or not. I ask this question as Tim Worstall in a recent op-ed argued, capitalism, as a productive system has proven to be beneficial for women and “capitalism, markets, and trade, is [are] pro- women.”
He wrote this on the backdrop of the severe global impact of the absence of trade on women during the Covid-19 pandemic. In his words: “If the absence of something [capitalism, markets, and trade] is detrimental to women then its presence is beneficial, this is very, very, simple logic.”
Not so simple
I do not find the situation as simple as that. A critical analysis of the history of economic reforms, petty entrepreneurship through microfinance and incorporation of women in formal employment in Bangladesh will reveal the incorporation of women in market and trade, as such in the capitalist system, has been beneficial for the capitalists to a larger extent.
The rhetoric of empowerment sometimes becomes a disguise for many forms of exploitation. To explain my proposition, I will discuss the changing position of women in society and the economy since 1971 and describe how the overall socio-economic structure has always been exploitative towards women.
A number of studies that commented upon women’s role in economic activities in Bangladesh during the 1970s and 80s identified women’s responsibilities generally included household production and agricultural post-harvesting work. The patriarchal social norms and the notion of seclusion reinforced the invisibility of women and/or the lack of the incorporation of women in monetized economic activities of the market or development planning.
Since independence, macroeconomic reforms, the advent of microfinance programs, followed by industrialization in the country, contributed to the empowerment of women through generating employment opportunities for them and thereby decreasing their financial dependency on husbands -- indeed a form of empowerment. But this is not the start or end of the story. There is more to this narrative.
Structural adjustment programs (SAPs) and women
In Bangladesh, a change in the governmental approach about women’s contribution to the national economy coincided with the international focus on “market participation” as the viable route of empowerment.
In the 1980s, this was also the period of World Bank and IMF-led structural adjustment programs, in which the country was undergoing reforms aimed at trade liberalization, decentralization, and privatization. The first wave of reform occurred in the early to mid-1980s, when subsidies on agricultural inputs were reduced and trading of agricultural inputs was liberalized. The second wave of reforms started in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
It included the liberalization of imports, private trading in grain markets, and major reductions to longstanding programs for public distribution of grains. Trade liberalization and privatization policies had a significant impact on employment and the earnings of women.
Since 1986-87 privatization of agricultural inputs, irrigation facilities, and machines had increased the cost of cultivation and led to the indebtedness of poor peasants. The means of production were concentrated in the hands of the rich, and peasants were pauperized. Poor men who had been cultivators turned into wage-labourers either to survive or to complement their income.
Furthermore, with the introduction of mechanical rice mills, opportunities for the husking and drying of paddy became unavailable for women. Men engaged in commercialized and mechanized tasks, which previously had been considered women’s jobs.
While men found alternative sources of income, most women completely lost their means of income. Partial loss of women’s status due to the loss of productive control was exemplified by growing numbers of married women who were abandoned, separated, or divorced, as well as an increasing proportion of young women who remained unmarried.
A shift in the marriage system from a bride price to a dowry model also illustrated the changing (affected) status of women. The polarization of land induced by agricultural reforms effectively opened up rural Bangladesh for NGO activities and microfinance.
Microfinance and development patriarchy
The developmental NGO sector in Bangladesh capitalized on the “Women in Development” paradigm of the United Nations and Western aid organizations during the UN Decade for Women (1975–1985). Liberalization of the economy could not ensure women’s access to credit.
Women were initially incorporated into the development agendas of the NGOs and gradually became part of the state’s development plans. In this regard, Florence McCarthy and Shelley Feldman in a 1985 working paper argued, although the concern with recognizing women and integrating them fully into the development process was imbedded in humanistic and liberal rhetoric, the actual reasons involved efforts to generate resources and expand forms of surplus extraction.
For example, the areas that constituted women’s responsibilities in the production and reproduction of the household were yet to be fully monetized and/or incorporated into the general processes of appropriation and accumulation.
The government had an enhanced intention of monetizing the rural sector and of increasing people’s participation in the commodity market, and this materialized with efforts of extending credit facilities and providing skills training to women.
Microfinance model rests on the idea of the individual entrepreneur who, with the help of microfinance, becomes self-employed and owns the private property, ie the assets acquired with the loans. The home-based entrepreneur links effortlessly with the ideology of neo-liberalism.
The individual woman/borrower becomes an owner of petty capital and can sell labour in the market. This production of the entrepreneur and the work ethic lead to the idea that failure to succeed rests solely on the individual and not on the NGO or the state.
Consequently, NGOs in Bangladesh got tremendous power in regulating people’s behaviour as providers of credit, jobs, and sustenance to a financially needy poor rural population. Lamia Karim in the book Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh (2008) argued, NGOs that work with microfinance manipulate the existing notions of Bangladeshi rural women’s honour and shame in the furtherance of their capitalist goals.
For instance, when any microfinance provider files a case against a defaulter, the police arrest and keeps that woman in custody overnight. This brings shame to her husband and family, undermining her modesty and virtue. Thus, Lamia Karim called this “the economy of shame.”
Microfinance operating NGOs appropriate Bangladeshi women’s lojja (shame) and somman/ijjot (honour) in setting up the microfinance model that serves capitalist interests. In the villages of Bangladesh, the most severe accusation against NGOs (such as Grameen Bank, BRAC, Proshika) is that they break up the traditional family structure by targeting women through the provision of microfinance.
Ainoon Naher in her PhD thesis Gender, Religion and Development in Rural Bangladesh (2005) mentioned, during a large annual religious meeting (waz) in a village, it was claimed that Grameen Bank taught women to chant: “Shami boro na sir boro?” (Who is more important, husband or “sir”?); “Sir boro, sir boro” (It is “sir” who is more important).
The substance of the accusation is false, but the structure of the claim is crucial. The alleged chant did not run: “Who is greater or more important, husband or wife?” therefore, positioned developmental authority against patriarchal authority. This shows that in their endeavour of breaking up domestic patriarchy NGOs operate through another form of domination.
Sarah White in a 2012 article claimed, the empowered women portrayed by NGOs are not really free from structural inequality but rather, NGOs replace domestic patriarchy with development patriarchy. Garment industry and its dedicated workers The garment industry of Bangladesh is considered as the backbone of our export earnings.
The government and Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA) always point towards the workers’ dedication and quick learning abilities as the industry strength. Millions of female garment workers stand for the achievements of women empowerment initiatives.
However, how the dedication to work in the industries or empowerment in the social spectrum is actualized mostly remain out of focus. In the garment industries, workers face a very tough working condition. They are forced to work 12-16 hours a day or more to meet shipment deadlines.
The condition can be judged from the comment of a garment worker, “[...] we try not to even drink water so that we do not need to go to the toilet. We do not take breaks to eat either. We have to fulfil our target.” A critical look at the labour process reveals that workers are employed (ie empowered) and earning money but in a condition of exploitation.
Nonetheless, one may argue, the hard work that the workers are forced to give is a reflection of the “dedication of the workers,” as the BGMEA asserts on their website. Besides, the adoption of new technology in the industry is “leaving women behind” as CPD claimed in 2020.
Since 2010, about 92% of the garment factories have gone through technological upgradation and simultaneously, the proportion of women in the workforce came down to 53% in 2016 from 58% in 2012. This tendency echoes the sidelining of women from productive activities when agricultural technologies were mechanized in the 1980s.
Hence, technology is not always pro-women in terms of furthering employment opportunities. The advent of capitalism has had diverse influences on Bangladeshi society. Probably in many ways, it has altered the social structure, creating provisions for engagement of women into monetized productive activities.
However, treating the changes in the frame of women empowerment as a benign contribution of capitalism is a one-sided argument. We must not retreat from critiquing the systematic/ structural exploitation that women are being subjected to under neo-liberal capitalism.
Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.