Women empowerment and progress are inextricably tied to technological advancement
Since the emergence of the Homo Sapiens, men have dominated women using their strength to control and get their way. Evolution, however, favoured attitudes in men to bond with women and to protect their children. For both man and woman, this was a successful strategy, and over time there has been evolutionary selection in favour of the rather surprising emergence of love and permanence of relationships (although not all biologists agree on this).
This idea of family is, of course, one that we are very fond of and constantly announce that this is at the base of our society. The importance of family is self-evident as the incubator for our children and the den to which we repair for sustenance and peace.
One hears this cry for family everywhere. It is a constant theme of complaint by both Republicans and Democrats in the United States that the family is threatened by social change. It is repeated in Dhaka as both an important and positive attribute of Bangladeshi society, where the family is seen as something strong and positive. But change driven by technology is very powerful, and shapes the structure of the family.
Perhaps we protest too much. Things are more complicated. The world is changing, and the consequences for traditional family relationships are remaking these structures. I sketch portraits of three average Bangladeshi women. These are three generations of a family. We see in these sketches how technology drives behaviour.
A child of Bangladesh’s liberation
Consider the life of a Bangladeshi woman who was 25 years old in 1970 just before Bangladesh was liberated. She lives in a rural area -- married at 15 to a man chosen by her family, little or no schooling, illiterate, completely under the influence of her husband and his family. Her husband is 15 years older than her. Her life expectancy at birth was 50. Her life expectancy now at 25 is 55.
Starting at age 15, she has been pregnant nine times -- three miscarriages, six children. Breast feeding her children to the age of two, raising children until they are 15 years old, her life is taken up with pregnancy and child care. By the time she is finished with bearing children and taking care of them, she is 45 years old (in 1990).
She has worked hard in the house and the farm; she is tired and worn out. She was abandoned by her husband when she was 35; he was 50, still sexually active, and sought a younger woman. She is cared for by her sons, and dies at 55 years old (in 2000). She had traveled very little until she was over 40, when she may have gone to see the one son who lives in the city.
She knows little of the world except the wisdom of the village. She knows nothing of nutrition or modern medicine. Her entertainment is within the family and the village. Her religious beliefs are a mixture of Islam and more animistic ideas that village women hand down from generation to generation.
Without question, she has led a life that a modern Bangladeshi woman rejects as unsatisfactory and unfair. Bound by custom and children to her husband, she is likely to be beaten by her husband and has no escape or respite. This is the fate that is decreed for her and she accepts it. Most women work, within the confines of this life, with the aim of making their husbands and children happy and strong. She does not vote and has no political views.
Now consider the life of a Bangladeshi woman who is 25 years old in 1990. She lives in a rural area. She got married at 18 to a man her family selected; he is 10 years older than her. She has been pregnant four times with three children and one miscarriage. She will however, have three years of primary school education and be barely literate. Education is important to her and she would like to learn more. She remains dominated by her husband and his family.
Her life has fewer burdens with children now, and she spends only about 20 years taking care of young children. She is finished with this by the age of 38 (2003). She watches television regularly. Her eyes are open to a different way of life, one she wishes for her children. She knows about cars and cities. She loves the music and dancing that she sees on television and revels in the soap operas. She lives vicariously through the lives of the heroines of these dramas and feels their agonies, betrayals, and joys.
As she has more time available she is likely to travel inside Bangladesh with friends or children. Her extra time leads her to take up some income-earning project that she funds through a microcredit program. In meeting with others in the microcredit programs, she learns about business.
She is honest and does not cheat. She tries hard to repay her loan and usually does so. The income that she earns is a matter of trouble with her husband who tries to control it. She learns from her friends that she should try to manage her own money, and as she starts to do so her attitude towards life begins to change. She is empowered. She can buy things she wants, take trips, and buy presents for her children and her husband without having to beg for money.
As she gets older, she is less likely to be abandoned by her husband who sees the value of the income that she is earning. She knows that she must take care in feeding her children and is more and more knowledgeable of nutrition. She is no longer prepared to accept abuse from her husband or his family, and the group she belongs to discusses these issues openly. She understands that she is not alone in her problems and she is now able to talk about these problems with her peers.
She knows that there are modern medicines and uses them, although she still respects and listens to the traditional village medical practitioners. Her religious beliefs are more based on Islam, but she is very doubtful of many of the claims made about her inferior position as a woman. It is gradually dawning on her that she is a person in her own right and is not defined by her husband and her sons.
She lives to be 65 (2030), and the last years of her life are likely to be somewhat lonely as her children have grown up and her husband has died. She has political views but is unable to support the leaders she prefers.
Consider next a woman born in 1985. Her life expectancy is 75 years when she is 25, and she lives to 2060. She is 25 years old in 2010. She lives in a city, and marries a man she chooses at the age of 22. She has only one child, and they cannot afford any more. She is through with child raising by the age of 27 (2012).
She has completed SSC and reads quite a lot. She works full-time in a factory, and provides to the household about the same income as her husband. She is her own person and is not ready to be abused by any man.
She has watched television all of her life and knows a lot about the world. She, like her mother, loves soap operas and knows all about the characters and their lives. She buys quite a few clothes and accessories. She moves around the city on her own or with her husband or girl friends as it suits her.
Her life is full of tension: City life is very competitive. The urban environment is difficult -- traffic is terrible, the air is not clean, water is irregular, and there are frequent power outages. She travels regularly on her husband’s motorbike, and sometimes drives it herself. She gets up every day, dresses, and goes to work, leaving her daughter at school.
She works hard assembling electronics for nine hours, plus half an hour for lunch. She takes the bus back from work and walks the last half mile to her flat. She spends 10 hours in the factory, two hours commuting, and by the time she is home she is tired. She works six days a week.
Her daughter does her homework and she and her husband watch television for a while before falling, exhausted, into bed. She is very much aware of herself as a person and wants to have a good life.
The city is tough and the work hard. But she is determined to educate her daughter and make a better life for her. She lives to be 75. She divorces her husband when she is 40 as she has met another man that she likes better. Her first marriage, she realizes, was really not suitable for her but she did not know enough to judge as she was too young. Before she and her second husband marry, she has been with two other men.
Her daughter graduates from university. She practices Islam and takes great relief in its teachings and guidance. However, she is grateful that now the teaching and sermons accept women as equal to men. She understands modern medicine and depends on it.
One of her girl friends lives openly but quietly with her partner, another woman, and no one fusses. The son of one of her friends lives with a woman to whom he is not married; they have one child. The daughter of one of her friends refused to marry the man who was the father of her child, and the girl lives happily with her baby and her mother. There is no shame at all.
She sees her mother often, but her mother is independent and lives in the village. This woman has traveled to India with her women friends and knows quite a lot about the world. Her old age is content with television, reading, and talking to friends. She has a smartphone and talks to her daughter daily. She uses email and is in touch with her mother and many friends in this way.
All her life she has voted regularly, very often in dispute with her husband of the time.
The lives of three women
This is the way that I think the role and status of women has changed. Longer lives, more freedom, participation in the formal labour force, higher level of education, fewer children, more exposure to the modern world, and more sense of self. That is what is happening and will continue to happen to women.
What we perceive to be women’s rights are actually the expression of these forces that are essentially technology driven. Controlling the number of children, factory jobs suitable for women, longer lives, television and telephone, and urbanization all reflect the technological changes that Bangladesh is undergoing. These changes cannot be stopped.
The challenge for Islam is to find a way to make the demands of faith compatible with the emerging life of the woman. None of these technologies were around 1200 years ago, but they are here now and they will not go away.
Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.