by Dina M. Siddiqi
Even twenty years ago, visitors to Dhaka invariably commented on the complete invisibility of women in public spaces. The roads and the bazaars, the cinemas and the parks were all male bastions. Locals, in contrast, appeared not to notice the absence until the convergence of international trade agreements and capital flows with national economic needs turned the erstwhile city of mosques into the city of factories. With the arrival of the garment export industry, the gendered landscape of Dhaka changed dramatically and irrevocably. Suddenly women at least working class women were everywhere.
Each day at dawn, literally hundreds of thousands of young girls and women march on foot to work at one of over eight hundred garment factories scattered around residential and commercial complexes in the city. The women begin to trudge back wearily at dusk and many do not get home until late into the night. Everyone knows who they are and where they are headed, everyone assumes their stories are known.
Like other export industries, the garment industry relies preponderantly on the labor of young female migrants from the countryside. Increasing pauperization and rising unemployment have long compelled women and their families to leave for the city in search of a livelihood. Despite the many stories of danger and exploitation, for most young women today the destination of desire is employment in a garment factory. Many women now migrate alone in search of a job something that was quite unthinkable for respectable young women to do even a couple of decades ago.
The workforce in Bangladeshi garment factories does not conform entirely to global stereotypes of sweatshop workers young, single and burnt-out by their early twenties. About half of all workers are over twenty, are married, and live with their families. Housing is a huge problem for all workers, especially those who are single. Most migrants join the ranks of the third of the city that lives in the ubiquitous slums that typify Dhaka (and other cities of the South). Others draw on real or fictive kinship ties to secure safe, if not entirely comfortable, lodgings.
New ways of making a living have produced new ways of living. For one, the street is no longer an exclusively male domain. The daily presence of women workers in such large numbers on the streets of Dhaka has thrown older social equations into disarray. When over one million women are so visibly employed in garment factories, it is hard to argue, as many people would like to, that the proper place of women is in the home. Conventional social and gendered meanings of space are under scrutiny. Gendered relations are being contested and renegotiated on the streets every day, quite literally. For women workers, the other side of their newly found visibility and autonomy is the risk of sexual harassment and assault in public places, which they face as they commute to and from work.
At the same time, the garment-workers are the archetypal consumers of capitalist modernity. In their precious leisure time, the workers, especially those who are young and single, can be found in low-cost shopping malls and at the cinema, in photo studios and in entertainment parks. Through their presence, women garment-workers have changed the face of the city. The disruption and recoding of urban social spaces that they have initiated will continue for a long time to come.