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Negotiating Purdah

The patriarchal bargain never covered all women. Poor widows and others without male protection were always given latitude to labour for wages, albeit at the starvation wages afforded by labour-market segregation and gender seclusion.[1] But impoverishment, landlessness, and the commodification of paddy production[2] undercut the material basis of the patriarchal bargain for even those women who could have expected male protection; these processes, we saw previously, had been underway since at least the mid-twentieth century, and probably far longer. Population pressure and landlessness (Greeley 1983), nucleation of the peasant family (Cain et al. 1979), ecological disasters (Feldman and McCarthy 1983a), and the immiserization that accompanied a precariously commodifying agrarian economy (Adnan 1993; Feldman 2001) contributed to a situation in which it became impossible to hold men to the bargain:

The kinship, political, and religious institutions that support male dominance and authority remain strong and intact, while the associated sanctions that ensure that males carry out their responsibilities to women have weakened. With the pressure of increasing poverty, this outcome is predictable, since male authority has a material base while male responsibility is normatively controlled. Normative control, while powerful, is nevertheless relatively malleable in the face of economic necessity. (Cain etal. 1979, 410)

Poor, unprotected women had little recourse in this context of broken bargains. But the relative malleability of normative control gave them one weapon: they could break purdah if that were necessary to survive, by reference to the 'natural laws' of necessity. As one woman summarized the corollary of the broken bargain: 'If my husband/family/community cannot feed me, who are they to say I cannot work?' (Feldman 2001, 1115). Statements of this kind can be found in much of the literature on purdah and poverty (for instance, World Bank 2007).

There are several aspects to the manipulation or renegotiation of the institution of purdah. First, the case had to be made to establish a norm respecting women's rights to bare survival. The pioneering early twentieth-century North Bengali feminist author Rokeya Hossain wrote of the obsession with purdah in her stories of The Secluded Ones, where she observed the fatal irony that to Muslim society, women's bodies were worth less alive and unveiled than dead but covered. Even in arguing for the right to 'come out' on grounds of bare survival, Bangladeshi women were pushing boundaries. It had to be demonstrated that the failure to protect women was more socially costly than the effects of broken purdah. These were among the lessons of the rape, destitution, and social breakdown of the 1970s.

Second, while the bargain was often broken, no better system of protection replaced it. The social protection and poverty reduction programmes since the 1970s represent aspects of that system under construction. But these are at best a patchy system that could never match the total protections (and affections, and controls) of a financially solvent father or husband. Few Bangladeshi women are able to entirely dispense with male protection, so even when the bargain was so fundamentally broken, women still adhered to some version of the norms of seclusion that afforded 'symbolic shelter' (Papanek 1973).

Third, when broken en masse, it became necessary to reinterpret the norm, to make paid work outside the home compatible with good womanhood. Within a generation or two, an apparently rock-hard patriarchal principle was perceptibly softened. By the 1990s, women threw a dupatta or sari anchol over their head as a nod to modesty norms, and it was enough to permit them to move about their business with only the aggravations of sexual harassment to deter them. Many now invest in the apparently orthodox, but in fact mobility-enhancing, burka; middle-class professionals adapt this further by wearing a white jacket that mimics a lab-coat and clearly signals professional- woman-at-work. The adoption of the hijab probably signals the global politics of Islam more than a renegotiation of purdah, but it nonetheless lets women combine personal freedom with the respectability that comes with overt religiosity (see also Rozario 2006). Many Bangladeshi women now talk of purdah as an internal condition that governs personal behaviour, but has little to do with outward appearances. Elora Shehabuddin detects a 'subaltern rationality' in how women define purdah as 'a state of mind, a purity of thought, something that they carry inside them rather than an expensive outer garment, [which] permits these women to present and even see themselves as pious Muslims yet leaves them free to meet the basic needs of survival' (2008, 4). In this remarkable feat of ideational engineering, the contemporary practice of purdah seeks the symbolic shelter of personal modesty, while confidently carving out a feminine public space. Rokeya Hossain's stories of burqas that strangulate their wearers read now as tragicomedies of an almost unimaginable past.

  • [1] In one of my earliest research projects, a study of women-headed households, I realized thatthe norm of extended family care of elderly women was probably a middle-class ideal when adestitute widow we were interviewing made it clear she had never expected her son would take herin: he had a hard enough time keeping himself and his wife and children alive (Hossain and Huda1995).
  • [2] And probably the rise of jute production, although I recall no examples where reliance on juteproduction has been analysed as a reason for the decline in the material basis of East Bengalipatriarchy.
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