A Personal Tale of Women’s Suffering and Suffrage
By Kathryn Bush
He couldn’t have been much more than 7, although Bangladeshi children are smaller than their American peers. Barefoot, he darted from the protective ring of little boys, and rushed past me. Just before he reached me, his work-worn hand reached out and touched me on my stomach, just below my waistline. It seemed odd and furtive, and at the same time it did not seem entirely innocent. I didn’t think about it much that day, until it happened again in another Bangladeshi village outside Dhaka. Women were not welcome in the Bazaar, and my presence there was an invitation for unbridled disrespectful behavior from little boys, and hostile leers from older men. Although covered completely with Western clothing, with only my face and hands showing, I was more modestly dressed than some of the Bangladeshi women, who wore saris over short-sleeved shirts. It was not my dress that offended, it was my audacity, my offending presence that caused these men and boys to scorn me.
I later learned that this touching game is common throughout the Indian subcontinent. The point is to touch a woman in public in the most private of places. The only women who were immune from this in Bangladesh were those who wore a complete Burqa, a black robe-like covering, with a face mask with small slits for eyes. Every other woman faced the prospect of public humiliation each time she stepped out her door.
I was in Bangladesh to view the workings of the Grameen Bank, the brainchild of Mohammed Yunus who has since won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of the poor. He believes that access to credit is a basic human right. His bank in the early 1990s gave over $5 million dollars a month in loans of $50 to $100 to the very poorest of the poor, mostly women, with a 97% return rate. These women did not see the end of the adversity in their lives, but the quality of their lives improved. When women’s lives improve in developing countries, children’s lives improve.
Golessa Begum was 12 when she was married to her husband. She had no dowry, so she had already shamed him. She was so poor, she had no shirt to wear under her sari, so could not leave her house. Because she first bore her husband boys, her lot in life improved. But like many poor Bangladeshi women, her husband controlled the money, and sometimes it went for beer rather than rice. When she was 18, mother of 3 boys and 2 girls, she took out her first Grameen bank loan. She bought a sewing machine and cloth, and began making saris. Because the other women could come to her house to buy them, they did not have to rely on their husbands or brothers to accompany them out or to buy their saris for them at the forbidden bazaar. She paid back her first loan, and was eligible for another. She took out a house loan, and built a house with a tin roof, a well and a latrine. One year, she used her loan to begin a banana farm, which her husband and sons work. The day I met her, all her Saris and cloth had been stolen by a band of thieves who dug through the dirt floor of her house while she and her family were sleeping. Yet, she was not devastated. They had rice, the bananas were coming ripe, and all her boys and girls could read and write from the schooling they received through the Grameen bank. Like many other women with whom I spoke on that trip, she gave a simple answer to the question, “What was the hardest thing you have had to do for these loans?” “I had to learn to write my name,” she whispered back, her eyes turned downward as she recalled her struggle. No Grameen Bank borrower may sign their loan papers with an “X.” She must write her own name. Many a Bangladeshi borrower looked up at me with a sparkle in her eye, after demonstrating her hard-won skill.
It was voting day in one of the remote provinces we visited. Trucks of soldiers passed us, men standing in the beds of trucks, leaning on the wooden enclosure, with weapons casually slung over shoulders. Although women have the right to vote in Bangladesh, they tend not to. Their world is dangerous. The polling booth is often long miles away, too far for a woman to bring her children. The way is unpredictable, and it is unclear whether a woman would be safe there and back. Our guide told us that women simply didn’t endure the strain. Yet, when we visited a group of women borrowers, five groups of five actually, they told us two of the women were not with us because they had not yet returned from voting. “How many of the rest of you have voted?” I asked. To a woman, each raised her hand to show her bright red thumbprint, proof of having cast her ballot in the election. Each woman had her own red badge of courage.
All these years later, I have learned to count my many blessings. My world has changed remarkably since I was a child. I may wear pants or a skirt in public – it is up to me. Only those 90 years of age or older can remember a time when women couldn’t vote in this country. There is no longer widely held mutual scorn for “women drivers.” Boys and girls alike have equal access to education in growing proportions around the world. The women’s movement made it possible for a women to be seemly even when she opened her own car door for herself, or when she left her house without ridiculously restrictive undergarments.
I have changed even more deeply than these changes would predict. Before I went to Bangladesh, I was at liberty to see the act of opening a door for a woman as a symbol of men’s control over women’s lives, an offending remnant of an even more patriarchal era. Now, I have been to a place where I have seen how men control women, and it changed me in fundamental ways. I have become a gentler and more flexible feminist. I do not waste energy being needlessly offended. I now accept the act of a man opening a door for me with grace and appreciation for the kind respect that has just been offered. I am free to leave the safety of my house any day I wish, and the men I encounter, whether they realize it or not, have helped to make that possible.