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Can Muslim governments help women prosper economically?

June 22, 2004

What is followed is a case study in Bangladesh about the plight of women, but every woman from a Muslim society could identify with a similar Quranic precept applied to her dependence to the man within her immediate or extended family members economically, if she has been born in a Muslim country where the Sharia Law is practiced.

Why is the technique of time allocation of women's work used in case studies in developing countries? One reason is that by studying the amount of time women work in the informal sector -- at home, in local markets, in farm-fields -- it is possible to determine the monetary value of this work, as it pertains to a specific location. In this study, I am analyzing a micro-level issue involving the status of women within the local economy of a village. This case study was conducted in Bangladesh.

The information on time-allocation was collected in Char Gopalur, a village in the Mymensingh District of Bangladesh. The data was then used to analyze the role of women in one rural economy. In 1977, the authors of this case study collected 24-hour time budgets from 114 different households, every 15 days for one year. They surveyed male and female residents aged 4-years and above. The data reported in this case study represent 25 observations on each eligible household member from late December 1976 through early December 1977.

The study captured occupational multiplicity and seasonal variation in work-time inputs. The village is poor and densely populated. One-third of all households are landless; the rest own small plots. Most income is earned through agricultural wage labor. Some fishing, petty trading, animal husbandry, and a bit of non-agricultural wage labor provide additional sources of income. The technology of agricultural production is very simple. Humans or cattle provide the energy. Major crops produced are rice and jute. The land is fertile, usually supporting two crops a year. Yields, however, remain low, because irrigation is uncontrolled and little modern input is applied. The technology of household production is also primitive: There is no electricity or running water in the village (Cain 413).

Women's work in this study is viewed in the context of an existing patriarchy, a powerful system of male dominance. In this case study, I chiefly focus on culture, especially the local values culpable for the decline of the local economy. These values form the division of labor and work organization within households. The existence of the patriarchy is maintained via the popular culture, which keeps women segregated through the "system of purdah," a stratification system.

Other local social issues, such as ownership and inheritance law, household and kinship structures, the local distribution system and the female labor market are also examined, in an attempt to understand, anthropologically, why some development projects are lagging behind others. It is particularly evident in Muslim societies that sex differences are often manipulated for social and political ends. The Islamic inheritance law (practiced in most Muslim societies) as well as socially acculturated habits stigmatize women with a "badge of inferiority," encouraging them to remain economically dependent on a male relative; a father, brother, husband, or uncle.

Time allocation technique is used in anthropology to obtain accurate and detailed information on human behavior and culture. It is, thus, a tool for the study of cultural behavior (Gross 519). It can also be used to help indigenous peoples learn to value the economic worth of the "non-formal" work they perform. This sort of education can raise grass-roots consciousness, inspiring greater participation in civic and political life. For instance, if mothers encourage their daughters to be involved, then changes in attitude will come rapidly with each succeeding generation. My own fieldwork in Iran after the 1979 Revolution convinced me that Muslim men believe in female inferiority largely because they do not see women contributing to the household economy.

There exist in rural Bangladesh two systems of stratification. First, there is a class-based society hierarchically organized on the basis of the ownership and control of arable land. Rigid production relations exist between landed and landless households, and landlord and tenant households. The other system of stratification operates between males and females living within the same household. Thus, there are two distinct processes of economic differentiation that occur in the society.

One is the process of class formation, which governs the economic mobility of the households. The other is the system of patriarchy, which governs the economic mobility of women within the household, independent of class (Cain 406). Marxists, feminists, anthropologists, and other social scientists have defined patriarchy differently. In this case study, patriarchy is defined as a set of social relations, with a material base, that enables men to dominate women. The material base of patriarchy is men's control of property, income and women's labor.

The structural elements of this control include aspects of the kinship system, political system and civil religion. The kinship marriage removes a newly married woman from her family of birth and places her in her husband's locality. Preference for lineage and village exogamy attenuates a woman's ties with her family of birth, reducing the possibility that her family will intervene on her behalf after marriage. Exogamy and physical separation also make it less likely that a woman will claim her share of inheritance, and make it more likely that her brothers will seize control of her share of inherited land.

Arranged marriage and the advanced age of husbands in relation to their wives (usually there is 10 years difference of age or more) places women in subordinate roles relative to their husbands. There is evidence from the village showing that women do not receive a substantial dowry upon marriage, which would represent independent financial security. Upon registration of a marriage, it is common for a husband to promise to pay his wife a specified sum of money (kabin), in the event of divorce. In practice, however, women rarely receive the kabin upon divorce (Cain 406-9).

Within the political system, men monopolize political power. Elected officials, administrators, and police are all men in these villages. (Since the invention of Grameen Bank conditions are somewhat different for a greater change for women. Thanks to Mohammad Yunes, the Founder of Grameen Bank, whose cliental are 95% women. I will follow up this report with a complete introduction of the Grameen Bank's work in the villages and its success).

The villages Councils (salish), which adjudicate most local disputes, are composed exclusively of men. In part because of the male domination of political institutions and in part because formal judicial institutions and administration are weak, particularly in rural areas, legal protection of women under either civil law or Islamic law is nominal. If a female litigant in a land dispute is not closely identified with and supported by a man, she is likely to lose, regardless of the merits of her case (Cain 407).

Within the religious scriptures, both as an ideology and as the normative force that channels behavior and expectations, Islam represents (the male interpretation of the Quranic verse) a strong apology for patriarchy. Islam is explicit about the sexual division of labor and is responsible for sanctifying male dominance. According to Islam (I want my readers to bear in mind that female scholar recognized by theocratic regimes of the Muslim states are prohibited to interpret the Quranic verse for legislative purposes), man is the earner, woman the server of man. It states "Men are the managers of the affairs of women, for that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another" (Quran - Sura 4, verse 38)

Righteous women are therefore obedient. The Islam interpretation clearly states that men and women have their own spheres of activity -- a scheme of functional division in accord with their respective natural dispositions, produced by the inheritance of distinct physical and physiological qualities and characteristics. Two aspects of Islam as interpreted in Bangladesh have direct effects as instruments of patriarchal control: The laws of inheritance and the manifestations of purdah, the seclusion of women (Cain 407-8).

Muslim inheritance laws allow a daughter one-half the share received by a son. In practice, if a woman inherits land, her husband cultivates it as if it were his own. Many note that women relinquish their share of inheritance to their brothers as a way of gaining favor and generating good will for a rainy day. Purdah is a system of secluding women and enforcing high standards of female modesty. Its cultural manifestations in Bangladesh include severe restrictions on women's movements outside their immediate homestead, a "bari" consisting of an open compound surrounded and shielded by huts, foliage and fencing. The standard dress code hides women's faces and form.

Women who move out of the homestead into the public "male space" are considered both provocative and offensive. Purdah is a complex institution that entails much more than restrictions on women's physical mobility and dress. It denies women access to many opportunities and confers upon them social status as a protected group. While men have power over women, they are obligated to provide them with food, clothing, and shelter. But under the pressure of increasing poverty, male normative commitment has eroded. Certain women lose protection because they are infertile, widowed, ugly or too black to marry (Cain 408).

One of the women in this sample study was the second wife of a relatively rich man. She was previously married and had a number of children by her former husband. Two of her children died, and her daughter married. Her only son joined her in the new household. Several years later, when the husband died, all his land was passed on to the children of his first wife, because the second wife bore him no children. {The economic security for female in most Muslim societies is to bear as many children. This could be one of the many reasons of the overpopulated Third World societies.}

The widow was unable to turn to the family of her first husband for help. Consequently, she was left with no means of support. She survived by begging, traveling daily to Mymensingh Town (over eight kilometers away) for this purpose. She and her son were permitted to maintain a hut in her deceased husband's bari. Ironically, the Bari of her deceased second husband is perhaps the richest per capita in the village, and her brother-in-law, who lives in the same Bari, is by far the richest man in the village. None of this, however, has done the widow any good.

The plight of a widow with no son, or with an immature one, illustrates several points. First, it indicates how women's economic status is dependent on that of her husband. As long as the widow's husband was alive, she was a member of a wealthy household and lived accordingly. Upon his death, however, her status declined almost immediately. Second, the case presents an instance of patriarchy as a system of stratification independent of class. Women face a different set of rules of economic mobility and a different set of risks than do men. Despite her ties through marriage to the wealthy landed class, the widow was not protected. Third, the case illustrates that women have little resources when they "run afoul of the structures of dependence." There exist few alternatives to begging for women in such a position (Cain 409).

The joint household, another cultural ideal in Bangladesh, is a domestic form that usually permits smooth transitions for a woman through the various stages of her life, and continued security in the event of her husband's death. Maintaining a joint household, however, requires a certain amount of land or other wealth. Land gives the household-head power to control his sons and the labor required operating the land justifies a larger and more complex household structure.

Land ownership also increases the likelihood that a surplus can be generated and applied to the support of dependent kin. Without land, the joint household is unstable. A number of recent studies in Bangladesh show the prevalence of nuclear, as opposed to joint households' -- a product of increased poverty in the region. In Char Gopalur, only 15 percent of all households are in joint structure. With one or two exceptions, the joint households are those of relatively large landowners. Women who are especially dependent on kinship bonds for their security stand to suffer the most from this trend.

The erosion of joint households is one symptom of the strain that poverty places on the bonds of obligation between kin and, more specifically, on men's fulfillment of their normative obligations toward women. The patriarchal system in Bangladesh appears to be in a state of disequilibrium. The kinship, political, and religious institutions that support male dominance and authority remain strong, while the associated sanctions that ensure that males carry out responsibilities to women have weakened. Since male authority has a material base, the pressure of increasing poverty threatens to make malleable the bonds of normative control (Cain 422-3).

While this outcome is not surprising, it is certainly alarming. The system is generating an increasing number of women who must fend for themselves in an environment that presents few opportunities for women to work. The high proportion of landless households in the population is a good indicator of the progress of rural class differentiation. Also, the proportion of female-headed households indicates the extent of "patriarchal differentiation."

In 1976, in Char Gopalur, there were 22 female-headed households, constituting 6.4 percent of all households. Almost all of the female household heads are widows. Out of a total of 70 widows living in the village, 20 head independent households. Only 41 widows enjoy the security of being members of their son's households. The female-headed household is poor because the deceased husband was poor, or because the widow had no claim on her husband's property. In Char Gopalur, 17 of the 22-female-headed households are landless (Cain 411).

The same patriarchal structures that force women into relative seclusion in the household compound also deny them access to most forms of market work. The longstanding division of labor among household members encouraged women to specialize in work inside or near the homestead, and men in work outside the home. This division is consistent with the norms of purdah, enforcing women's dependence on men by denying them direct access to income-earning opportunities. This sexual division of labor applies to all women, regardless of economic status or household structure. Women are totally excluded from most agricultural wage employment. Consequently, the labor markets in rural Bangladesh are more segregated than those of many other underdeveloped agrarian societies.

The market for women's labor is normally demarcated both physically and functionally. A circle with a radius of 200-400 meters describes the physical limits of the market for a particular woman's labor, with her homestead at the center of the circle. Geographically, the market for the labor of any given women is small. The pool of potential employers is limited by the condition that some prior social relationship exists between a woman seeking work and the employer. The relationship might be based on kinship. The norms of purdah influence the distance a woman would be willing to travel to work, the distance a husband would permit his wife to travel, and a woman's willingness to work for strangers. The psychic and the more tangible costs of the job search rise quickly when a woman leaves the confines of her "circle" (Cain 428).

Women find wage employment in the village primarily wealthy households, as servants or as processors of rice and other crops. Seventy-seven percent of all female wage employment involves work done in the employer's Bari. The largest source of employment is rice processing (50 percent of all cases). Due to segregated labor markets, women's wages are lower than men.

This means that the demand for male labor is largely independent of the demand for female labor. Wage-employment demand generated by male sources is much greater than that generated by female sources. Thus, while rice and jute represent 86 percent of the total cropped area in the village, women find employment in only the three percent of cropland devoted to chilis, potatoes and groundnuts crops. Not surprisingly then, sex differentials in time allocated to wage work suggest that women are less likely to find wage work than men (Cain 429-30).

In this study comparing all work done by males and females, it was found that, over the course of an entire year, the average hours of work per day are roughly the same for the sexes, 8.33 for males and 8.29 for females. Of total work time, however, men allocated 85 percent (7.04 hours) to income-earning work, whereas women allocated most of their labor time to home production of 81 percent (6.68 hours).

Although women have complete responsibility for preparing meals at home, they do not themselves go to the market to make purchases, because of strictures of purdah and the distance of the bazaar from the village (two kilometers or more). Women allocate 67 percent of their time to childcare, food preparation, firewood collection, rice processing and similar household activities (Cain 416).

A woman's progression through life is marked by a series of transitions in status. Transitional events usually include marriage, the death of her father-in-law, and the death of her husband. The status of woman's relationship to the head of household is a daughter, daughter-in-law, a wife, or a mother. During each period, the woman's relationship of authority to other women in the household determines her work pattern. Two aspects of women's life circles have particular significance for the social control of women and perpetuation of patriarchy.

One is the process of sex-role socialization during childhood. The other is the hierarchy that exists between women of different status living in the same household. In general, older women dominate younger women. Mothers-in-law dominate daughters-in-law, elder brothers' wives dominant younger brothers' wives, etc. This age stratification among women allies older women with patriarchal interests, because both share domination and exploitation of younger women. It also gives the younger women something to look forward to with advancing age (Cain 422).

Why is a case study of women's time allocation in Bangladesh of interest to anthropologists? Bangladesh is a traditional Muslim society whose economic progress is hindered by patriarchal provisions and religious precepts. Bangladesh needs international assistance to enhance its physical capital, in the form of technology, and to enhance human capital, via educational development. Social scientists, especially anthropologists, need to perform more social and cultural analysis in order to understand existing problems, in order to help local women find solutions.

A brief profile of Bangladesh is helpful at this point. Bangladesh became independent in 1971. Today, ninety percent (90%) of Bengalis are Muslims. According to the World Development Report of the World Bank and the Human Development Report of the United Nation's, Bangladesh is a low-income nation with a low level of development and poor living standards.

In terms of economic growth, its per capita GNP of $70 in 1971 was raised to only $200 by 1993, keeping the nation among the poorest in the world. In 1970, the average annual rate of inflation was 20.8 percent. This number went down to 8.6 percent in 1993. In terms of human quality, life expectancy at birth is 56. The total illiteracy rate was reduced from 80 percent in 1970 to 65 percent in 1993. Female illiteracy is about 78 percent. Due to the nation's high birth rate, the 1996 population of 119.8 million will double in 35 years, if the current rate of births continues.

Infant mortality is 88 per thousand. Poor nutrition and sanitation contribute to high maternal and child death rates and high incidence of infectious disease. Agriculture is central to the nation's economy. Most people are engaged in growing, marketing, transporting, or processing agricultural products. Sixty five percent of the labor force is in agriculture, and 42 percent of agricultural workers are women. In 1989, only 0.6 percent of workers in agriculture were paid. Among the entire female workforce, 64.9 percent performed non-wage work, according to the International Labor statistics, ILO (World Development Report 1995).

The government of Bangladesh has endorsed the objective of raising the status of women. However, it is difficult to determine the extent to which such endorsement reflects a real commitment. It is hard to judge whether or not this stance is simply an expedient response to pressures applied by foreign aid agencies. In any case, it is possible that development planners and officials, due to a lack of data, fail to adequately appreciate the predicament of rural women. The vulnerable position of women is made even more precarious by strong incentives for high fertility. This analysis presents a strong argument for rendering women the highest priority in development plans, specifically rural women.

The systematic nature of patriarchy suggests that solution to the problem of women's vulnerability and lack of income-earning opportunities will not be easily reached. Policies to increase women's economic autonomy or protect their rights would conflict with patriarchal interests. Such policies will meet resistance. Resistance can be expected from both women and men, if policies imply violating the norms of pardah. Also the government of Bangladesh is strongly committed to a policy of mechanization of rice processing. Most female wage employment is now in rice processing. While there may be strong political reasons for pursuing mechanization, this policy will erode an already fragile female labor market (Cain 433).

A major part of this case study focused on cultural analysis. The authors believe that micro-level studies focusing on the household as the unit of analysis have recently provided valuable insights into economic and social relations of rural areas in those developing countries where the household predominates as the locus of decision-making, and the male head of household reigns as decision maker. They also argue that in the past, focus on the household as an entity has downplayed relations between household members. Women's contribution to the functioning of the household has been ignored. The welfare of women is not considered apart from that of other family members. By extension, a development policy intervention based on such analysis has also neglected women as a separate interest group in the development process.

The authors found that in rural Bangladesh, patriarchy interacts with economic class to produce rigid division of labor by sex, and a highly segregated labor market. Over time, religious rituals have become social rules by which men control the welfare of all women, whether the woman's relation to the man is wife, daughter, mother or sister. In terms of social variables, male dominance is grounded in control of material resources and supported by elements of the kinship, political, and religious systems. In terms of cultural variables, female seclusion extends to labor markets, limiting women's opportunities for independent income generation.

The potential agents of change and sources of resistance to the current system of patriarchy are undermined by the interaction of age, sex, and class hierarchies. The older women's solidarity to patriarchy weakens resistance because of an age hierarchy that allies older women with patriarchal interests. Also class differences between women contribute to patriarchal power. Poor women, out of need, contribute to the household economy without receiving formal recognition. Rich women, in situations such as death of the husband or separation from male relatives, can end up as beggars.

The institution of purdah is another cultural variable that confers social status upon women, while at the same time serving as an instrument of repression. The two key findings in this case study is: First, as the bonds of obligation between kin erode under pressure of poverty, the risk of precipitous decline in status for women increases. Second, those women who have to sell their labor because they are left with no male to depend upon, face a market that is highly restricted both spatially and functionally, entailing low wages and high rates of unemployment.

The issue of "time allocation of women's work" could be used in workshops as part of development projects. It affords an anthropological perspective on villagers in terms of the monetary value of non-formal work. Women who are more aware of the extent, to which they contribute economically to the family, gain a measure of economic independence from male relatives. According to the local culture in Char Gupalur, women do not see themselves as partners sharing the economic burden of the household with their husband.

Also, determinants of women's work patterns in rural households need to be identified for public policy programs that seek to improve the well being of the rural population. Women constitute more than half of the total population, and are directly involved in the production of both market and nonmarket goods. Their participation in development activities through their involvement in market-oriented production may be a precondition for economic and social development in a country such as Bangladesh (Khandker 122).

Women spend much of the resources at their disposal in the production of nonmarket household goods, such as children, health, nutrition and education. The economic aspects and implications of household resource allocation in nonmarket production have received great attention from social scientists and policymakers alike. But the interrelationship between women's roles and development is not completely understood.

The household models pioneered by Becker and Gronan provide an economic framework that describes these relationships. Household nonmarket production is an efficient way of obtaining consumption goods and producing some forms of human capital. Households that buy all consumption goods in the market may not fare as well economically (Khandker 86). Over the past two decades of planned development in Bangladesh, during the reign of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, the emphasis in women's programs has gradually shifted from a consumption-oriented approach to a development-oriented approach (World Development Report 1995).

Nationally, many women have resisted patriarchal oppression through confrontation. In one macro-level confrontation, the incident in 1995, Muslim fundamentalist protesters demanded the death of feminist author Nasrin Taslima, who was cited, for blasphemy. A Muslim leader offered a bounty to anyone who succeeds in killing the author (Ward Anderson). A micro-level confrontation can bring tragedy to local women in villages that confront patriarchal elements of the popular culture. In many instances, the men attack women who do not submit to arrange marriages with older men. Rejected suitors have splashed acid in the face of women, to injure them by harming their physical beauty, thus reducing their marriage marketability (CNN News, November 1997).

How could a society inform its citizens that women's work in the informal sector is contributing to the national economy, the GDP? This can be done through formal schooling and non-formal education workshops, targeting both men and women, especially older women who have more free time. These workshops could raise consciousness of women's entrapped conditions within the system of patriarchy. Women can also be encouraged to become more aware of the "local value" given to their own daily activities -- the household production of non-marketed goods and services. They could become more aware that these activities are vital for social reproduction and human development.

Women's activities in the household, local markets and in the field (the non-formal sector) could eventually be established as an indicator of national economic performance, and used in computations of national GDP. This way, the recognition of women's participation in the work of a community could open an avenue for legal protections and social welfare measures. Increasing the human capital of women by, for instance, raising their level of education, appears to contribute significantly to their involvement in nonfamilial market jobs. This involvement may increase a woman's economic independence, thus increasing her ability to control childbearing and her marital fertility.

Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

Cain, Mead; Rokeya Khanam; Nahar Shamsun. "Class, Patriarchy, and Women's Work in Bangladesh" Population and Development Review. September 1979. V5, 3. PP404-438.

Groos. Daniel, R. "Time Allocation: A Tool For the Study of Cultural Behavior." Annual Review of Anthropology. V13, 1984.

Khandker, Shahidur. "Women's Time Allocation and Household Nonmarket Production in Rural Bangladesh” The Journal of Developing Areas. V22 October 1987. P85-102.

Kandker, Shahidur. "Determinants of Women's Time Allocation in Rural Bangladesh” Economic Development and Cultural Change. October 1988. V37. P111-126.

Momsen, Janet Henshall. Women and Development in the Third World. Routledge, London & New York. 1991.

Nyrop, Richard. Area Handbook for Bangladesh. American University, Washington DC. 1975.

Tinker, Irene. Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development. Oxford University Press. New York, Oxford. 1990.

Ward Anderson, John. "In Bangladesh, Militants Seek Writer's Death: Islamic Radicals Call Feminist Blasphemer” The Washington Post. June 17, 1995. The World Development Report 1995.

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