On Monday, we had an incident that caused us to regroup. One team went to the Jita village and the other to the “control” village, where Jita does not operate. We had been in both villages for three days, conducting surveys and distributing the rubbish collection materials.
On the immediately preceding day, the questionnaire had included a battery of items asking about the respondent’s ability to move about outside the home and her ability to affect household decisions. (Bangladesh is traditionally quite patriarchal and still practices a form of purdah in rural areas.)
Here is the “sacred seat.” As it turned out, it was not reserved only for the imam, but for men.
As we arrived in the “non-Jita” village, one team went directly to their appointments. Radia and I had to wait for Hafiz, our Jita person for the day, as he was running a few minutes late. It was a beautiful day and we were in no hurry. So I sat down to wait and enjoy the morning. My seat was a kind of tiered, tiled affair, shaped like one half of a stile (see photo). It did seem odd to me that this tiled chair would be sitting out in the open (on the edge of a large meadow, surrounded by buildings, a kind of town square in which cows were grazing). So, I asked Radia and our driver whether it was ok for me to sit on it. They both shrugged and said, “sure.”
I had not been on that chair for five minutes when the imam showed up. He very politely explained that it was his ceremonial seat and asked me to get off of it. And, of course, I did. He then asked, in English, what country I was from. I said that I lived in England, but was originally American. Maybe I imagined it, but I thought he flinched when I said “American.” Then he asked if I were Muslim. I really wasn’t sure how to describe my religious affiliation, but I decided to go with my upbringing and said, “Christian,” realizing as I said it that I was going to seem increasingly foreign. He then asked whether I am married. I explained that Jim was in the next village. And then whether I had any children. I decided to “mother up” a bit and said I had four, by claiming Jim’s children as well as my own. (This strategy also allowed me to claim a son, which is an important credential here.)
Then, I walked over to our car, where the driver had opened the door and was gesturing to me to get in. I sat down.
Here are Radia and I, just about an hour after this confrontation occurred.
Just in that short span of time, a crowd of about thirty men had gathered around the jeep. A man of about 50, with a bright orange beard and hair (the men color their hair here with some variation of henna and it sometimes goes haywire), began talking to Radia. All the others were listening. The imam said nothing further, but remained in the center of the group, facing me and clearly lending his credibility to the whole confrontation. I couldn’t understand the conversation, of course, except for “Oxford University” and “woman empowerment” (more on that later), but it was clear the talk was serious.
Suddenly, Hafiz arrived. (Whew!) As we walked away, I asked Radia what was going on. She explained that the orange-haired man had been polite, but quite angry. He had charged us with putting ideas in their women’s heads and trying to instill discontent by asking questions about mobility and decisions. She had made vague answers, trying to put him off.
It was obvious that one or more of the respondents from the previous day had shared the content of the questionnaire and it had spread through the village. I was concerned that we might have further trouble that would reflect badly on Jita and endanger the team. This is, after all, a part of the world where violence against women–throwing acid in the faces of the uncooperative and suchlike–has been particularly problematic.
The next day was a “down” day for us to debrief and prepare for the next round. At breakfast, I asked all the research assistants whether they thought there was risk from the men going forward. I was surprised that they all said “yes.” I thought I might have over-estimated the situation. This is a level-headed bunch of young women, so I took their caution to heart.
We spent some time trying to make a plan that would provide safety and avoid further tension in the villages. We all agreed we needed Bengali-speaking males to go with each of the four teams into the field. I found it interesting that the research assistants felt our presence provided a certain amount of safety. One commented that they would be vulnerable out there alone because they were “city girls, uncovered.” Now, I must tell you that, from a Western perspective, these ladies were covered from head nearly to toe. All week, they wore the commonplace overblouse and trousers with matching shawl PLUS another shawl or sweater. They wore sandals, but this is permissible. They did not cover their hair or faces, however. More on that later.
We deleted some questions from the next round of the survey. These were drawn from a standard set that CARE uses to diagnose gender norms, but they were even more pointed about the power issues than the earlier battery. We decided that we could do without them for this leg of the test and that, under the circumstances, they might be unnecessarily inflammatory. We were concerned not only for our safety, but for that of our respondents.
During the next round, we had no problems. There was never any issue in the Jita village, probably because Jita has already established a good reputation there. But in the “control” site, there was evidence right through to the end that the men were quizzing the women and we were being watched. Still, no one else complained and several women expressed their support for what we were doing (it’s pretty clear we are trying to help women, even though it’s just research).
Over the course of the week, two more things came out. One was about the original “sacred seat” that started the whole thing. Members of our team passed that seat several times. Men were sitting on it nearly every time. So, it was not reserved for ceremonial occasions. It was reserved for males.
The other thing was the stories, appeals, concessions, problems, and sometimes tears that began to come from the women. Many of the women here are happy, in spite of being poor. But many others are trapped by a combination of family pressure and violence, in a situation that is desperate, not because of poverty, but because this level of control, when it is in the hands of cruel people, is a kind of slavery–especially in a community that tolerates violence against women.
More on all that later, too.
I am glad we took the precautions we did to preserve the safety of our team and, I hope, our respondents. However, it does gall me that we were as vulnerable to an implicit threat of attack as were the women in their homes. We thus felt forced to alter our work accordingly.
It really cannot be said often enough that, at its roots, patriarchy is held in place by the threat of violence. It does not have to be voiced explicitly. The potential hangs in the air. Ours was an object lesson that all women, from Oxford professors to “city girls, uncovered” and not just village women, fall under the scope of that power.