“Now women run the show”: Equality or Illusion?

Ateeb Ahmad Parray

I met Rahima (pseudo name) in Korail slum while doing a group session as a part of a training. She has lived in Korail slum for many years. Now she is a community health worker in BRAC’s health programme. While discussing the changes in the slum over the period, Rahima stated:

What’s changed is that men used to run the slum before. Now women run the show.

I was totally struck by this statement. She explained that her father-in-law wasn’t in favour of her moving to a city with her husband. Mentioning having to “wait for his death” to come, to live with her husband. She also said that now she is viewed as a leader in the community.

All the other women who participated in the session shared similar experiences. Each of their stories is a piece of a larger, inspirational story of fights against social odds and women’s empowerment.

Life changes

Meeting in Korail

I have been visiting the urban slums of Dhaka for more than two years now. I have always seen women engaged in some sort of income generating work. Whenever I talked to them, they told stories of their lives having changed over time with different skills building training, jobs or micro-credits they received from non-governmental organisations. Their stories give strong vibes of economic empowerment, self-sufficiency and leadership. At the same time, these are stories of sorrows, struggles and hardships that each of the woman goes through their daily lives for achieving their financial and social freedom.

Being a woman in a patriarchal conservative society like Bangladesh is a lifetime struggle in all socio-economic classes. And if that woman belongs to a poor socio-economic strata and lives in an informal settlement, then the intensity of her struggles becomes high. As described by a community health worker, living in one of the urban slums of Dhaka:

This is what it takes to handle everything on your own.

The unheard sigh

As, much as I appreciate the empowerment these women feel, I also sense their ‘unheard sighs’. Given the burdens that these women have to shoulder is this perceived equality just an illusion? Men in the urban slums of Dhaka, often appropriate the income that women generate. Women face the ‘double burden’ earning the money but also taking care of daily chores, managing children and running the household. They are responsible for everything. Does this resonate the true sense of empowerment or are we burdening them with more responsibilities?

Equality now?

Most of the diverse women living in the informal settlements in Dhaka city – ready-made garment workers, shop owners, teachers, NGO workers – are actively participating in income generation and education. But their empowerment depends on support from their families, male counterparts and society. Because of that it is fragile and relational. We must do more to ease their burdens and share the responsibility.

These diverse categories of women all have jobs but are they really able to exert their agency in their lives. It is worth questioning. That is a point where most of their lives converge. I was left with a thought, even though these women are empowered in their own contexts does this empowerment reflect the equality that should exist in society? This makes me think about whether empowerment is a mere illusion for these women.