Comments on Rochelle Jones’s report on "Increasing fundamentalism in Bangladesh: A threat to women’s rights?"

In her recently concluded essay on “Increasing fundamentalism in Bangladesh: a threat to women’s rights?” May 27, 2005, Association for Women’s Rights in Development,[1] Ms. Rochelle Jones claimed to analyze fundamentalism and its impact on women in Bangladesh through the eyes of women there. While I agree with her conclusion that an “over-emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism as a security threat can distort important socio-economic factors that play the most important role in improving people’s lives particularly women,” I consider it important to point out some inaccuracies and exaggerated claims in her report. Most of the material in Ms. Jones’s report is based on hearsays and sources of dubious origin. From her citations, it appears that it was mainly the biased, and now discredited, reporting of Eliza Griswold (The Next Islamist Revolution? The New York Times, January 23, 1005) that lured her into writing this report.

Let me analyze some of her statements.

(1). Ms. Jones mentions that 80 million of people live in shantytowns without access to clean water and sanitation. I don’t know what her definition of “shantytown” is. If she meant the 65,000 villages that comprise Bangladesh, then she ought to make a trip in the rural areas to find the truth herself about clean water and sanitation. If she meant slums that dot various parts of cities, often lived by migratory workers from rural areas, their number won’t come anywhere close to the number she has cited. The vast majority of Bangladeshis (almost 74%) live in the rural areas. While no third world country, including nearby India, can claim to have a perfect record on such basic necessities, in Bangladesh the percentage of population with access to safe drinking water is 97% (see, e.g. [2]).

(2). Ms. Jones mentions about 3 female babies killed by their fathers in 3 months of last year. Well, shall we be alarmed with that statistics? One can argue that it is too small a number, even dwarfing comparable statistics of any western city, including Philadelphia where I happen to live. No, infanticide is uncommon in Bangladesh; this, in spite of its poverty. The Islamic religion has been a great savior to stopping this evil crime. In poor societies, the preference for male children stems from the mere fact that they are a better source of income and support for the poor parents and their families. This does not mean that women cannot earn or become a source of income for the family. They often do. A visit to Bangladesh would show that its women are penetrating all strata of economic life, including the construction industry. A visit to some rural bazaars would also show that there are now women vendors selling and buying goods, without the necessity of a male intermediary. However, Bangladesh, like most 3rd world countries, still does not have a good distribution network from the producers to consumers, thus requiring many middlemen to complete some transactions. Hopefully, in the future things will become better for the producers.

(3). Ms. Jones claims that due to high illiteracy rate, women have little access to credit and few rights of inheritance. The fact, instead, is: most creditors like the Grameen Bank prefer women as borrowers than men. They seek out women rather than men. And the same is true for many NGOs.

(4). Quoting a convener of an NGO, Ms. Jones says that female children are regularly deprived of their rights in the family, society, and country. This is another grossly inaccurate statement. Obviously, the convener could not have meant Muslim females (not in generality, anyway). Islam, the religion of 89% of people in Bangladesh, categorically demands that women be included in inheritance. So, if a Muslim were to deny such basic rights to his/her women relations that would be a departure from the Islamic norms. From our experience, whenever inheritance is denied to a Muslim female, it is often due to a lack of Islamic knowledge than anything else. Most Bangladeshi Muslim women would tell you that if the Muslim inheritance law were practiced, they would be better off compared to the situation today with lack of its application that they find themselves into. Nowadays, as far as inheritance is concerned, there seems to be a growing tendency amongst many educated parents to equalize the distribution. Even the educated Hindus (and Christians and Buddhists) who had traditionally denied such rights to their women are now providing some share of inheritance to their female children.

(5). Writing about the garment industry, Ms. Jones claims women earn half of what men do. This statement is incorrect and seems to be ill motivated to penalize Bangladesh’s garment industry. One has to look into the sectors where women work. Most garment workers are women who are doing knitting, sewing, etc., which are low-paying jobs to begin with, while men hold most management positions. This scenario is not unique to Bangladesh garment industry, but is true everywhere, even in Los Angeles among the garment employees (mostly from Asia, Africa and Latin America). From my interaction in the garment industry some 20 years ago in the Los Angeles area, women employees there complained about earning less than a quarter to men’s income. I don’t know if the situation has improved there. Anyway, when contacted, quite a few of the Bangladeshis who own and run garment industry in Bangladesh say that there is no truth to women earning less than men for the same job with the same skill level. It is still possible that there are some factories where women may be earning less. But that is true everywhere, even in the USA, where surveys have shown that women earn 70% on an equivalent men’s job.

(6). As to the fire incident in a garment industry, where 20 women died, well, fire does not discriminate between men and women. What are needed to stop such fires or collapse of factory buildings are government regulatory controls with building codes and safety measures with stiff fines for the violators.

(7). Ms. Jones’s remark about Jamati Islami of Bangladesh is untrue. The bulk of her thesis about the threat of fundamentalism comes from the discredited source of Griswold. Our statement here should not, however, be understood to excuse the excesses committed by extremist elements with Islamic leanings. At places, they can be and have become a threat to be reckoned with. But their activities don’t get to the level that we witnessed with Narendra Modi’s BJP-run Gujarat in India where thousands of Muslims were murdered with the full support of the state government. Nor do they compare with on-going criminal activities of the Sharon government in the Occupied Territories. Bangladesh does not have a history of targeted killings of minorities.

As to the killing of the former finance minister Kibria (AL), to accuse the Jamat is irresponsible and only proves that Ms. Jones has not been following the news on the matter. If she had followed the news, she would have found that no member of the Jamat was involved in that murder. Is it possible then that the report tried to find a connection of the murder with the so-called Islamic extremism or fundamentalism in Bangladesh one way or another so that Griswold’s ludicrous theory of Bangladesh being the next venue for an “Islamist revolution” could be proved?

(8). Writing about violence against women, Ms. Jones mentions acid throwing and similar kinds of crimes amongst disgruntled male populace. Yes, while such incidents of violence have gone down, still the Bangladesh government could do more to stopping these heinous crimes by imposing exemplary punishment against the perpetrators.

(9). As to Ms. Jones’s remarks on leadership and its lack of impact to bettering the status of women in Bangladesh, I agree that such gains have not necessarily translated into benefits for the Bangladeshi women. Hopefully with more education, especially amongst the women, things would improve.

Finally, let me say that people are discriminated everywhere for one reason or another. In a male-dominated society like Bangladesh, women see such discrimination more. But here in the western world, we see the same thing with race, esp. in the corporate world. A young white woman, with a BS education from a 3rd-rate school, can be and often are promoted over older, more qualified guys from the 3rd world countries with PhDs. How do we explain such norms?

There is no denying that Bangladesh has many flaws and that it is not the best place on earth to protect and uplift women. In the last two decades, it has repeatedly elected women to the highest positions in the government, something unachieved in any country in the world. There probably lies the hope about the betterment of status of women in Bangladesh. Worse examples of abuse of women and minorities can be found in India, Burma and Thailand, just to name a few countries. Yet, I am not aware of any similar piece published either by Ms. Jones or Ms. Griswold on those countries.

It is unfortunate that 9/11 has created a menacing environment in which we are willing to believe unquestioningly the worst in Islam and what its people could do. That is why we are not surprised about the recent election results in France and the Netherlands. Little do we ever question our own leader’s culpability or accountability for such a tragedy!