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The Weakening Agrarian Basis

The patriarchal bargain had been in decline for some time before the crises of the 1970s so dramatically highlighted its breakdown (Kabeer etal. 2011).

be emblematic of Indian difference from the West, such that 'the home was the principal site for expressing the spiritual quality of the national culture, and women must take the main responsibility for protecting and nurturing this quality' (Chatterjee 1993, 126).

Across their lifetimes, the women of this part of Bengal had customarily moved from father's house to husband's, depending entirely for protection and support on lifelong good relations with in-laws and bearing sons who survived into adulthood (Kabeer etal. 2011). The ideal-typical patriarchal bargain in the Bengal Delta had exchanged protection of women against hunger, exposure, and violence for their reproductive and rice-processing labour, as well as their adherence to social norms of seclusion and sexual purity. Women were—and still are—married as minors.[1] They all but universally moved to their husband's house and lived in extended family arrangements where they cared for the present and produced the next generation; they also supplied the extensive but invisible labour for post-harvest paddy processing. In return, women expected to be fed and protected against violence and insult; higher-status women could expect to be withdrawn from physical labour and secluded within the house; when widowed (as was common, because husbands were much older), or divorced, women hoped to be looked after by sons or brothers. Daughters relinquished their claims on paternal property in return for the promise of being cared for by brothers, if their husbands failed to protect them. Practices of seclusion and veiling, glossed as purdah or 'curtain', ensured women's sexual purity by curtailing their movements and delimiting their relationships.[2]

  • [1] The practice persists on an almost universal basis, reflecting the continued priority of femalesexual purity, the extreme personal insecurity faced by or feared for girls and women, and theinstitution of dowry or payments to grooms' families since the twentieth century, a reversal of thedirection of marriage transactions that historically applied (Lindenbaum 1981;Ahmed 1987).These appear to be the main reasons Bangladesh has the second highest rate of child marriage inthe world, although its 'outlier' status continues to present a puzzle. Almost three-quarters (74 percent) of women aged 20-49—that is, who came of age since Bangladesh's independence—weremarried before they reached eighteen, the legal age of marriage (UNICEF 2014). The situation doesnot appear to be improving: 65 per cent of women aged 20-24 had been married before 18,according to most recent figures—a level that has stayed fairly constant since the mid-1990s(NIPORT 2013). However, recent evidence suggests that at least some of these 'early' marriagesoccur later than girls' actual birthdates would suggest, because the premium on female youthmeans parents would prefer to lie and break the law on marriage age than to admit that girls areover 18 at the time of marriage (Streatfield et al. 2015).
  • [2] Kandiyoti's description of classic patriarchy applies here (1988). For accounts of Bangladeshiforms of patriarchy specifically, see Adnan (1993);Cain, Khanam, and Nahar (1979);Kabeer(1988);Feldman (2001). Greeley (1983, 43) examines the implications of changing agriculturaltechnology for the economic basis of patriarchy, and Feldman and McCarthy (1983b) detail thenew symbolic and spatial forms taken by purdah against these shifting economics.
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