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'The Woman Issue' in Development

While Bangladeshi society was struggling with the implications of post-war devastation in the 1970s, the world of aid was starting to discover the potential role of Women in Development. Just as the country served as a testing ground for experiments in development, it has been on Bangladeshi women's bodies and in their lives that technologies from reproductive devices to financial services and modes of public service delivery have been devised and refined in the name of development. In its early years, the concerns of the aid industry could seem oddly disconnected from the visceral pain of a society putting itself back together after a bloody struggle, depicting Bangladeshi society as

a strange political void where the concern became to teach village women to read, write, sew, embroider, knit, weave, appreciate the value of eating low-status vegetables and fish, and become small-scale agricultural entrepreneurs, even while the country was busy abandoning thousands of innocent rape victims, victims of the 1971 War of Liberation in the notion that they were 'polluted'.

(Alam and Matin 1984, 2)

In how it presented issues of women and gender in the early postindependence years, much of the literature is, as Alam and Matin argue, oddly detached from history and politics and focused on understanding how women can be made to do development faster and better, or at all. Abdullah and Zeidenstein's well-known study of rural gender relations, undertaken to inform a programme to 'integrate' women into rural development via credit and livelihood activities, is guilty of just such a disconnected view. They note that the women they study consider social change to have been very rapid in the recent past, but say little about how the traumas of the conflict may have shaped their worldview or adherence to older customs (1982). One of their key conclusions is that 'projects or services intended to reach rural women are more likely to take hold if they address the priorities of rural women and their families and the village' (1982, 216), presumably reflecting the fact that development approaches that did not do so were common. Despite its limitations, the study showed that new space had been created in which to discuss issues of gender. Knowledge about rural women turns out to be crucial to development practice: in her foreword, no less than Ester Boserup notes the key lesson that 'experts must first learn from the rural women before they can teach them' (Abdullah and Zeidenstein 1982, viii). And the study challenges the idea of the intractability of the 'woman issue', showing that rural women and their men were both more favourably inclined towards women's involvement in development projects than urban educated men in aid agencies and government.

A key and enduring critique of the dominant representations of women in Bangladesh is that they often take a 'utilitarian and manipulative stance towards women which seeks to reduce women to the status of means of social policy', chiefly to encourage them to have fewer children or to be 'harnessed to the cause of development' (Alam and Matin 1984, 9, 3). Social-scientific and public policy interest in women starts and ends with their contribution to development, such that development policy 'appears like a super ego in virtually every work on women in Bangladesh' (White 1992, 18). White further argues that the

changing imagery of Bangladeshi women—from a 'backward' sector 'left out' by development, through 'human resources' or 'resource managers' to the passive 'target' of programmes aimed to reduce their fertility and draw them into capitalist production—originates in the aid community, rather than in Bangladeshi society itself. (White 1992, 19)

It seems unarguable that the specific language and concepts used to define and describe women and their material and social concerns start with the concerns of aid. But it is worth asserting again that the history of the emergence of women's issues suggests that aid was applying its own projectized language and categorizations to a setting of social decline and profound human crisis about which little could be understood, let alone changed. Into the platitudinous blandness of some of this early aid research on women we can read an understandable effort to sanitize the horrors and pain and render them, literally, manageable.

 
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