Our first inkling was in the Dubai airport when we caught the connecting flight to Dhaka. The waiting room was full of young Bangladeshi men going home from working in the Middle East. Their energy was so high, you could feel it in the air all the way across India. As the wheels hit the ground, some were so excited, they jumped out of their seats before the plane had stopped. The flight attendant had to run down the aisle several times, shouting “Sit down! Sit down! All of you!” at the top of her lungs.
When we arrived at the baggage claim, these men were practically standing on each other to be the first to spot their luggage, so they could grab it and go home. Every one of them walked away with a trolley piled as high as it would go with purchases for the folks in the village.
These guys were so keen to be home, they were practically crawling over each other to get their bags, which are stuffed with manufactured goodies for the people at home.
Today, we saw the women’s side of this phenomenon. We began our first data collection, a series of basic questions about who is living in the household, what they do for work, and so on. It became clear right away that many of the husbands were “abroad,” as they say, in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, or Singapore. In fact, in one of the first homes we visited, the husband was just home for the weekend– maybe he was on our plane! Over the course of the day, our sample suggested about 60% of the husbands were working overseas.
The absence of the husband from the home in a rural village has many implications for daily life. Of course, there is more money. The homes we are seeing in this area were in noticeably more comfortable financial circumstances, compared to other places we have visited here on previous trips. Though nearly every home we saw was made of corrugated tin, and some very sparsely furnished, several contained either huge suites of sofas with matching chairs or beds with matching vanities. Nearly every home had a large china cabinet filled with dishes and glassware, neatly stacked for visitors to admire. Everyone had at least one mobile phone–I saw three hanging from a power strip in one place.
Here is one of the nicer cooking areas. It is essentially a “hob” or “range” made of clay.
But there were contrasting emotional and social experiences. Traditionally, women in these communities seldom venture beyond their home neighborhood–almost never alone. Decisions are made by the men and the mothers-in-law. But with so many men absent, the roles among the women necessarily shift, as they have done throughout history–during times of war, for instance–when large numbers of males migrate.
So, it was interesting to watch the wife of the young man who was home for the weekend answer our battery of questions about her mobility. She answered affirmatively about going on her own to the market, to community meetings, and so on–behavior that would still be seen as transgressive by some. He walked up as we were asking about these issues. We usually try to avoid having the man present, so the woman can answer freely, but as I watched them, I was reassured. As she told us of her new situation, she would look past the group to meet his gaze, with the slightest little twinkle in her eye. He looked back at her, not with disapproval but with affection and amusement. It was nice to watch it.
It is difficult to capture the beauty of the setting, but easy to imagine how homesick the men must be for these villages.
That particular couple had been married only a few years ad were still childless. A contrasting case was nearby: this other woman was older, with two daughters in their teens, one of them already married to a man also working “abroad,” as well as a son about a year old. She told us of having to take on the responsibility and additional stress of managing and making decisions for her little family. She has no choice but to go out into the community to obtain goods, make arrangements for schooling, and so on. Her husband was sending money, but she was having to budget, make payments, deal with any shortfalls.
Her affect was one of quiet confidence. Her daughters, too, stood straight and sure. I could see that they were modeling themselves after the inspiring picture of their mother rising to this occasion. However, the wife emphasized that she was able to move freely and take decisions because her husband trusted her and had made this known to his family and neighbors. It was clear that they all loved him and I am sure they missed him. But the experience of being on their own was making them grow and it was an observably positive thing,
Another young woman, living nearby, presented a stark contrast. She was under twenty and had already been married more than two years. She was six months pregnant. Her young husband and his brother were both away, leaving her behind, along with an equally young sister-in-law. These girls (because truly they were girls) were living under the roof of their husbands’ parents, who were really quite elderly. Though there is little private space in any Bangladeshi village, we nevertheless got a strong sense that this girl was isolated and lonely and probably deeply depressed. So, in this case, the absence of the husband was likely just leaving her lonely, and she was even less able to move about or cope with life.
Yet another woman married her husband in 1996 and he left almost immediately for Saudi Arabia. The last time he visited, she conceived her 7 year old daughter. Yet he still sends the remittance–but to whom? She lives with his parents! This seems less a marriage than some kind of foster care. Indeed,we spoke to quite a few women whose husbands were basically gone–they left as much as 20 years ago and seen seldom since, but still send money. One such woman had moved back in with her own parents. Who gets the remittances that case? We should add these questions to the research.
A nagging question we probably won’t ask is the effect on these women sexually. They are expected to behave like married women, but have no flesh-and-blood partner. Here we see the operation of the assumption posed so any years ago by Gayle Rubin: the whole economic arrangement presumes (and must insist on) the woman having no sexual desire.
This phenomenon of male migration is deeply changing the way life is lived at home in Bangladesh. It brings in a modicum of prosperity. It opens up gender roles for some. Yet it also creates a lot of loneliness–and potential for exploitation of daughters-in-law, not only for domestic service (now a frequent complaint), but for the remittance itself.