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The Basket Case

The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargain and the Emergence of the 'Woman Issue'

The human-development advances of the first forty years could never have been possible if the mass of rural women had stayed as secluded, excluded from paid work, unschooled, and without control over their fertility or health, as they were before independence. But the crisis events of the 1970s brought about an abrupt break in the already weakening patriarchal bargain.1 Out of the devastation of the period, and partly in an effort to demonstrate the modernist credentials of the new state, 'the woman issue' came to be viewed as both an urgent and an actionable problem. The ideological space and resourcing generated by this new view of women allowed state, market, aid, and civil society actors to dream up new ways of working with them, many of which were later exported elsewhere. Some of these ideas and interventions were coercive and controlling; many aligned with or actively shaped women's own interests and desires.

By recognizing women's issues as matters for public policy, Bangladesh was relatively advanced compared to other low-income post-colonial states. The demands of foreign aid helped draw political elite attention to the connections between gender and the reproduction of poverty (Nazneen etal. 2011, 31) and to making public finance at least partly dependent on attention to matters of gender (see Nazneen 2009). But in key respects, aid agencies were pushing on—or walking through—a door that had already been opened by the crises of the 1970s:[1] [2]

The first half of the seventies in many ways marked a watershed in attempts to deal with women's issues... a gradual dawning of awareness among women themselves of the unequal social relationships in which their lives were embedded. For poorer women, the upheavals which marked the early years of the decade (the cyclone of 1970, the War of Liberation of 1971, the famine of 1974) may have merely confirmed what they already knew: in times of crisis, women are the earliest casualties. (Kabeer 1988, 110)

The old patriarchal bargain had worked well enough so long as the rural economy supported livelihoods secure enough to protect women against hunger, disaster, and exposure. Kabeer points out that the series of crises showed that the women of Bangladesh were no longer (if they ever had been) guaranteed such protection, shifting middle-class attitudes so that the women's movement in particular came to see the concerns of the average Bangladeshi woman as inseparable from its own (1988).

The events of the 1970s did not cause the break, but they dramatized the slow-onset crisis engulfing the agrarian system on which customary patriarchy depended, hastening the inducement of institutional change in gender relations (Kynch 1998; Kynch 1997; also Ruttan and Hayami 1984). On the ruins of the old bargain, Bangladeshi women were gradually incorporated in a more public, citizen-like role, included within the social contract in their own right instead of via the borrowed citizenship implied by the sexual contract (Pateman 1988). The enlargement of the customary domains of women's lives not only brought them out of purdah; it also brought problems of security and survival out of their familial and reproductive domains and into the public sphere, complicating the boundaries of politics and government. Women's citizenship rests largely on their status as mothers of the nation, current or future, but this nonetheless means they are seen as citizens with substantial and important interests, concerns, rights, and political leverage (Werbner 1999). Like other states in an era of globalization, Bangladesh needed to transform the population to make it more amenable to government; in this the interests of mothers and the state had to align, so that bodies and behaviours could be measured, monitored, and transformed to meet the needs of the national project.

  • [1] This chapter grew out of conversations with Naila Kabeer about the effects of the early 1970son gender relations in Bangladesh. Particularly important for me have been her insights into theway in which the shock to Bangladeshi society disrupted customary gender norms and women'sbehaviour, paving the way for challenging new approaches to 'women's needs'.
  • [2] The 'woman question' had already been raised in previous generations of nationalist politicaldiscourse in colonial Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century, typified in the Ghare-Baire ('homeand world/outside') dichotomy of Rabindranath Tagore's nationalist novel of that name. Women'sliberation was dropped from nationalist political concerns as customary gender relations came to
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